Hydrofracking: A New Environmental Threat

A hydrofracking operation in West Virginia. Photo: wvsoro.org

Erin O'Neill

Hydrofracking is the most serious environmental challenge we've ever faced. The more I study this, the scarier it becomes.
- Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation

Hydrofracking. Or horizontal slick water hydraulic fracturing if you want to get technical. It's a new natural gas drilling process developed by Halliburton, among others. The energy industry calls it the new green energy technology that will save the planet and the economy.

The process involves drilling vertically for some 8,000 feet, then boring horizontally for another 8,000 or so feet through a shale deposit. The drilling creates cracks and fissures in the shale to release trapped natural gas. The drill wells are pumped with millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and sand per every extraction. After the gas has been extracted from the shale, the "frack water,"--water, chemicals and sand--is released from the well and held in a containment area. Unless citizens stop it, Central New York will be the latest community to face this ecological threat.

Two Sides of the Story
Being a recent SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate, as well as the daughter of a small family farmer from western/central New York, I can understand two sides (of many, I'm sure) on this issue.

I understand the need for struggling agriculturalists to maintain their way of life; to carry on a tradition that may be generations old, and perhaps the only way they've supported their families. If land is a farmer's main resource, he or she will use that resource to continue supporting their family's standard of living.

Today, when small farmers are being bought out left and right by developers, and their products can't possibly compete with large factory farms, family farmers are struggling to make ends meet. So when these farm families are offered financial security with no work, aside from signing a sheet of paper, the prospect can seem irresistible. Especially when all they know about hydrofracking comes from the gas companies' sales agents.

The Issues
The drilling companies don't tell people that drilling takes place 24 hours per day, seven days a week, every day. Drilling is noisy, and because the drilling companies are exempt from zoning regulations and inspections, drilling can occur as close as 200 feet from residential areas.

Effluent from drilling contains chemicals such as benzene (an industrial solvent, additive to gasoline, as well as a carcinogen and hormone blocker) and hydrochloric acid, both of which can be hazardous to humans at any level of exposure. Air pollution from drilling pads has also caused major health problems in other communities.


1) Contact Gov. David Paterson and DEC Commissioner Grannis: as a result of citizen activism, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) extended the public comment period on Hydrofracking regulations until December 31.

2) Educate Yourself: peacecouncil.net/noon is a good place to start.

3) NOON is mapping the 1200 gas leases already signed in Onondaga County. We need help with research, educational outreach and advocacy to protect the environment that sustains us. Contact Jack Ramsden at (315) 424-1454 or ramskids2go@aol.com

The effluents from the drilling are often stored in plastic-lined, open-air ponds with flimsy fencing. There is no way of knowing if the ponds leak until it's too late. In addition, open-air ponds are accessible to wildlife, or pets, or even, God forbid, children. By the DEC's own analysis, there will be hundreds of tanker truck trips in and out of well drilling sites to supply water, chemicals, and thousands of feet of pipe and construction materials, often on roads not suited for industrial traffic.

The largest cause for concern regarding fracking, however, is not when things are done properly, but when mistakes are made or accidents happen, which happens quite frequently in an industry that is largely self-regulated. Accidents are particularly frightening when neither state governments nor the drilling companies can be held accountable for the damage done.

There have already been several cases of spilled "frack water" in Pennsylvania contaminating rivers and instances of seeping effluent from ponds in Colorado. Casing failures in Pennsylvania have resulted in contamination of drinking water wells with methane, causing explosions and flaming tap water

Final Words
Before people sign away their surface or mineral rights, they need to educate themselves about the processes and dangers to which they are exposing their families, communities and the environment. Drilling companies and governments need to be held accountable for the results of their practices. Not only are peoples' livelihoods at stake, but also their health as well as that of their children and grandchildren.

Erin graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Policy from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in May 2009 and is currently an intern with NOON