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Issue No. 40 - September 15, 2014

1. Maryland report highlights health risks of unconventional natural gas production

Potential Public Health Impacts of Natural Gas Development and Production in the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland

In 2011, the US state of Maryland commissioned a report from the University of Maryland into the potential health impacts of unconventional natural gas development and production (UNGDP), which has not yet been allowed in that state. The report has just been published and can be downloaded here. A summary of the research and recommendations is available on the same page as a slide presentation. This August 18 article in the Baltimore Sun discusses the findings.

The researchers evaluated the “major stressors” known to be associated with UNGDP, and ranked them from low to high risk, based on factors such as the disproportionate risks to vulnerable populations, duration of exposure, and magnitude/severity of health effects. The following is a summary of the stressors and the hazard rank given to each by the report.

Air quality (High), Production/flowback water related issues (water quality, soil quality, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs))(Medium), noise (Medium), earthquakes (Low), Social determinants of health (traffic, crime, sexually transmitted diseases) (High), occupational health (High), health care infrastructure (High), and cumulative exposures (Medium).

The report makes a number of recommendations, which include the following:
  • Requiring assessment of air quality and of the appropriateness of standard setback distances, including consideration of prevailing winds and topography,
  • Requiring detailed disclosure of planned well stimulation methods and classes and amounts of chemicals to be used (“Do not allow claims of trade secrets for identities and concentrations of specific chemicals or nanomaterials used in well stimulation”),
  • Requiring an air, water, and soil-monitoring plan,
  • Requiring that all UNGDP materials and wastes be stored in closed tanks, with open pits to be allowed only for storing fresh water,
  • Prohibiting well pads within watersheds of drinking water reservoirs and protecting public and private drinking water wells with appropriate setbacks,
  • Monitoring water quality, requiring the identification and monitoring of “signature” chemicals in fracturing fluids to allow for future identification of ground water infiltration/contamination,
  • Creating a mapping tool for community members using buffer zones (setback distance around homes, churches, schools, hospitals, daycare centers, public parks, and recreational water bodies.
Noting that increasing health care utilization would strain the existing healthcare infrastructure, the report found that it was “unclear” if the revenues from potential UNGDP in the state would be sufficient to cover the expected additional demands on the health infrastructure.

2. Rural residents at risk from dangerous and unregulated “gathering” pipelines

Fracking Gas Oil Pipes Threaten Rural Residents

An NBC News investigation published online on August 25, 2014 looks at the safety risks associated with the gas “gathering lines”, the pipelines that carry highly explosive oil and natural gas from fracked wells to storage facilities and major transmission pipelines. These gathering lines often run within metres of homes, with little or no safety oversight.

In the US, more than 240,000 miles of gathering lines already exist, and an additional 414,000 could be built by 2035. At present, around 90 percent of these pipelines are not subject to federal safety and construction regulations because they pass through rural areas. While there have been calls for these pipelines to be covered by the regulations for transmission lines, as they carry explosive gas at the same high pressures, the industry has opposed new regulation.

The NBC report notes that while there is no comprehensive record of fatalities or injuries caused by rural gathering lines, a survey conducted by two industry groups reported that between 2007 and 2011, six people died and 16 others were injured in gathering line accidents, including an accident in June 2010 in which workers hauling rock from a pit in Darrouzett, Texas struck a gas pipeline, which ruptured and ignited, killing two workers and injuring three. This was a few months prior to the explosion of a transmission pipeline in San Bruno, California, which killed eight people and destroyed nearly 40 homes.

In Ireland, petroleum infrastructure safety is regulated by the Commission for Energy Regulation. The recently published High Level Design of the Petroleum Safety Framework does not mention gathering lines from potential onshore gas production facilities. According to the Framework, safety risks associated with petroleum production will be regulated according to the ALARP principle: risks are to be kept “as low as reasonably practicable”. The Framework includes this explanation of ALARP: “The term ‘reasonably practicable’ indicates a narrower definition than all physically possible measures: if the cost of a measure to avert a risk, whether in terms of money, time or trouble, can be demonstrated to be grossly disproportionate to the risk reduction gained from the measure taking account of the likelihood and degree of harm presented by that risk, then the petroleum undertaking may not be required to adopt such a measure.”

ALARP is thus exactly the sort of regulation favoured by the petroleum industry spokesperson cited in the NBC report:
“We don’t oppose regulations, we just believe, and ask, that new regulations be risk based.”

3. Oklahoma earthquake swarm linked to fracking wastewater wells

Resident examines bricks that fell from three sides of his home in Oklahoma following two earthquakes that hit the area in less than 24 hours

Before Oklahoma’s oil and gas boom started in 2008, the state had about two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year. From January to June 2014, there were 253. The number of magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes is now higher than any other state, including California, which sits on the San Andreas fault. A study recently published in Science magazine, by researchers led by Dr. Katie Keranen of Cornell University, reveals that fracking wastewater injection wells, and four large wells in particular, are responsible for many of the recent quakes.
These articles discuss the research findings:
In November 2011, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake struck near Prague, Oklahoma. A resident who was injured when her chimney collapsed on top of her has now filed a lawsuit against the energy companies that operate the disposal wells that she claims caused the quake. A new study by the US Geological Survey confirms that the Prague earthquake was caused by wastewater injection.

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