Back to Reports

In the Shadow of the Marcellus Boom:

How Shale Gas Extraction Puts Vulnerable Pennsylvanians at Risk

by Travis Madsen and Jordan Schneider, Frontier Group and Erika Staaf, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

Hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling – a form of natural gas extraction rapidly spreading across Pennsylvania – poses serious potential for harm to our environment and our health. Gas companies are injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressures deep beneath the earth, fracturing the underground Marcellus Shale rock formation to extract the gas trapped within. Blowouts and fires can occur at well sites, and drilling and extraction can contaminate the state’s air and water. These impacts put the health of Pennsylvanians at risk – especially children and other vulnerable populations.

From Pittsburgh to Scranton, gas companies have already drilled more than 3,000 hydraulic fracturing wells, and the state has issued permits for thousands more. Permitted well sites exist within two miles of more than 320 day care facilities, 67 schools and nine hospitals statewide.

Federal and state regulations have not kept up with the speed at which gas companies have deployed into Pennsylvania’s communities. Governments should require gas companies to take greater precautions to protect citizens’ health and environment.

Marcellus Shale drilling and gas extraction is happening in close proximity to many vulnerable Pennsylvanians.

  • Gas companies have already drilled more than 3,000 hydraulic fracturing wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale (as of April 2011). During 2010, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued permits to gas companies to drill or deepen nearly 3,450 additional wells. So far in 2011, the DEP has issued more than 10 well permits per day, on average. In a broad strip from southwest of Pittsburgh to northeast of Scranton, very few places in the region are located farther than 10 miles from permitted well site. (See Figure ES-1.)
  • Children are likely more vulnerable to the impacts of gas extraction because they are still developing. The sick and diseased, meanwhile, have fewer defenses against pollution exposure. Across the state, Marcellus Shale well sites exist within two miles of more than 320 day care facilities, 67 schools, and 9 hospitals – providing a limited snapshot of the proximity of gas extraction to these vulnerable groups. (See Table ES-1.)
  • The DEP recorded 241 violations of environmental regulations at Marcellus wells within two miles of a day care facility, and 40 violations within two miles of a school, from January 2008 to June 2010 alone – not including traffic safety violations by tanker trucks.
  • With industry projecting on the order of 50,000 new wells over the next two decades, gas extraction activity is likely to move into even greater proximity to more vulnerable populations across the region.
Table ES-1: Proximity of Vulnerable Populations to Permitted Well Sites

Blowouts and fires at well sites create immediate health threats.

  • In April 2011, a well in Bradford County blew out during the hydraulic fracturing process. Thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled, contaminating nearby farm fields and Towanda Creek. Emergency officials evacuated at least seven families.
  • In June 2010, a well blew out in Clearfield County, northeast of Pittsburgh. The well spewed gas and drilling fluid 75 feet into the air for 16 hours.
  • In 2007, gas from an improperly sealed well in Ohio infiltrated a nearby home, where it exploded, seriously damaging the structure.
  • In April 2010, a tank and open pit storing wastewater from a well in Hopewell Township, Washington County, caught fire, sending a plume of black smoke across the nearby countryside. And in February 2011, four chemical storage tanks exploded at a Chesapeake Energy well site in Washington County, injuring three workers and spewing pollution into the air for three hours.

At every stage in the process, Marcellus Shale gas extraction creates risks for water pollution.

  • The DEP recorded more than 1,000 violations of regulations intended to protect water quality and the environment at gas extraction sites between 2008 and August 2010.
  • Spills or leaks can pollute rivers, lakes or groundwater with chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, some of which have ties to acute and chronic health impacts ranging from neurological damage to cancer. Among them are chemicals including diesel fuel, benzene, toluene and 2-butoxyethanol.
  • Additionally, the well drilling and fracturing process releases naturally occurring metals and salts from the shale formation, many of which can threaten human health, including arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, strontium and radioactive materials such as radium. These substances could contaminate water supplies through underground leaks, surface spills or improper disposal at water treatment plants.
  • Gas has been documented to contaminate aquifers up to seven miles from a well site, suggesting that pathways exist for contaminants to travel long distances underground.

Extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale also creates hazardous air pollution.

  • Gas fields can become major sources of health-threatening smog. For example, gas extraction and processing activities in the Barnett Shale region of Texas generate 70 percent as much smog-forming pollution as all motor vehicles operating in the nine-county Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan area. Wyoming’s Sublette County, home to thousands of gas wells but only 9,000 people, has suffered from unhealthy levels of air pollution more commonly associated with big cities since a drilling boom that began in 2005.
  • In addition to smog, well operations produce a variety of hazardous air pollutants, including diesel soot from thousands of truck trips and pump engines operating 24 hours a day, gases vented from wells, contaminants from processing the substances that come up out of the well, and fumes evaporating from wastewater ponds, including benzene, methanol and formaldehyde. These substances pose risks for acute and chronic health impacts, from dizziness to rashes to cancer.

Anecdotal reports suggest that living near gas extraction sites can cause health impacts, although little formal scientific study has been completed to date. For example:

  • Fifteen residents of Dimock, PA, filed a lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas in 2009, alleging that the company’s gas extraction activities polluted their water supplies and harmed their health. The suit cites health problems including neurological illnesses and gastrointestinal problems. It also alleges that one person’s blood showed toxic levels of the same metals found in drilling wastewater. The DEP has also taken legal action against Cabot in this case.
  • Residents of western Colorado and Texas communities near hydraulic fracturing gas extraction operations have reported strange odors and health problems including nose bleeds, rashes, burning eyes, breathing difficulty, asthma, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, severe headaches and blackouts. Several residents have developed rare cancers.
  • In a small town called Dish in the Barnett Shale region of Texas, tests have found a variety of hazardous pollutants related to gas extraction and processing in the air, in well water and in samples of residents’ blood.

Government at all levels must protect Pennsylvanians’ health and environment from gas extraction.

  • The Commonwealth should designate pristine places and locations near where people live or work off-limits to gas extraction. This should include areas near day care facilities, schools, hospitals and other vulnerable populations.
  • The Commonwealth should ensure gas companies pay the full cost of gas extraction and clean-up through higher bonding requirements, impact fees and higher mandatory penalties for companies that break the law, pollute the environment, or put public health at risk.
  • Additionally, the state should strengthen clean water laws, halt the use of toxic chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing process in favor of safer alternatives, increase the resources available to state regulators for enforcing the law, revoke drilling privileges for the worst offenders, and return erosion and sedimentation review authority to Pennsylvania’s County Conservation Districts to help manage the gas well permitting process.
  • The state should require gas companies to report important information to the general public as well as the DEP, including the types and amounts of chemicals used during drilling and fracturing and the composition and disposal of wastewater, in a timely fashion and on a well-by-well basis.
  • Federal law exempts gas extraction from regulation under key elements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Additionally, the industry faces no federal obligation to account for quantities of potentially toxic chemicals left underground, or to report toxic emissions to the Toxic Release Inventory. The federal government should end the special treatment for the gas industry and apply the nation’s core public health and environmental laws to gas extraction just as it would regulate any potential threat to public health or the environment.
Figure ES-1 – Hospitals, Schools and Day Care Facilities within Two Miles of a Permitted Well Site

Download In-the-Shadow-of-the-Marcellus-Boom.pdf