Sustained Outrage

Is gas drilling making West Virginians sick?

The fine folks at ProPublica had another interesting oil and gas drilling story a couple of weeks ago, reporting:

Hydraulic fracturing, along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents’ most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.

ProPublica examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states—Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania—that are drilling hot spots. Our review showed that cases like Wallace-Babb’s go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in earnest in 2008.

Concern about such health complaints is longstanding—Congress held hearings on them in 2007 at which Wallace-Babb testified. But the extent and cause of the problems remains unknown. Neither states nor the federal government have systematically tracked reports from people like Wallace-Babb, or comprehensively investigated how drilling affects human health.

I was reminded of this piece the other day when I saw the Wheeling paper’s headline, Doctor Wants Study of Drilling’s Impact, in which they reported:

The impact of hydraulic fracturing on the public’s health still needs to be studied, said Dr. Alan Ducatman.

Ducatman, West Virginia University School of Public Health dean, made the point during a program held Tuesday at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling. The program, “Marcellus Shale Drilling: A Health Perspective,” was hosted by the Ohio County Medical Society, OVMC and the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

Ducatman said things that could be impacted are people’s water, air and their environment in general, such as their roads and homes. For example, some patients, including some Marcellus Shale gas drilling workers, have come into his clinic with a variety of complaints. Workers have had acid burns or other skin irritations. But such complaints or issues are common in industry in general, he added.

Others patients complain about noise from well pad sites and related trucking, and still others about air pollution and bright lights from sites keeping them awake at night.

“The industry should get out in front of these issues,” Ducatman said, referring to initiating health studies.

Regular readers know that Dr. Ducatman’s department at WVU has been doing a lot of important work on both the health impacts of mountaintop removal and on the effects of the toxic chemical C8 … it would be fascinating to see the WVU team get involved in looking more closely at gas drilling’s impacts.