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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Fracking Around the Everglades?

By Lynna Kaucheck

The oil and gas industry touts fracking as a bridge solution on the highway to energy independence. But the dangers associated with fracking, including how it threatens public health and the environment, prove that natural gas is more like a bridge to nowhere.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is an extreme drilling process used to recover oil and natural gas from deep underground. The process uses a toxic cocktail of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals injected downward and horizontally at incredible pressures to fracture shale rock and release the fossil fuels within.

Recently, oil and gas companies have set their sights on Florida as a possible region to frack. Specifically, they are looking to begin drilling on environmentally sensitive land in Southwest Florida and the western portion of the panhandle. This year, industry-sponsored legislation related to fracking made its way to the Florida House and Senate, where Florida’s leaders approved bills pertaining to the capture and underground storage of natural gas.  These bills will lay the groundwork for exemptions and weak regulations for an industry that puts profits before public health and safety.

Fracking threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, the communities we love, and the climate we all depend on.

Known Carcinogens

Fracking pollutes the air we breathe. Volatile organic compounds, including benzene and toluene, are extremely harmful to human health and are often discharged during fracking operations. Near drilling and fracking activity in the Barnett Shale, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found airborne benzene, a known cause of leukemia, at levels of 500 to 1,000 parts per billion — more than five times higher than allowable limits. A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, when compared to people who live farther away, people living within a half mile of fracking operations face significantly higher cancer risk, as well as significantly higher risk of developing other health problems due to air pollution.

Millions of Gallons of Water

Fracking poisons the water we drink. The process requires huge amounts of fresh water. Each horizontal well can require anywhere from five to 20 million gallons of water for each instance of fracking. What’s especially concerning is that once this water is used for fracking, it is so contaminated that it can’t be returned to the water cycle.  It may be treated by toxic waste facilities or, more commonly, dumped into pits that are sometimes unlined, poorly constructed and unmonitored, allowing toxic fluids to seep into aquifers and local wells.

In Southwest Florida the Collier Resources Co. has engaged the Dan A. Hughes Company to apply for permits with the South Florida Water Management District to withdraw five million gallons of water per month from surface aquifers. These aquifers serve as the primary source of drinking water for people in the region and are hydraulically connected to local wetlands. If drilling is allowed to expand in south Florida, the cumulative impacts from these and similar withdrawals could be catastrophic to such a fragile ecosystem.

Oil and gas companies aren’t required to tell the public what’s in their fracking fluid, but it is well-known that many of the chemicals regularly used by the industry are hazardous.  A report by the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in 2010 found that 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer; 37 percent disrupt the reproductive system; 40 to 50 percent can affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75 percent could impair sensory organs and the respiratory system.

Threatening Tourism, Agriculture

Fracking also violates the communities we love. Industries such as tourism and agriculture take a hit when the oil and gas industry comes to town.  The hidden costs that drilling and fracking bring to communities include damaged roads, increased demand on emergency and other social services, public health problems from local air and water pollution, and job losses in other sectors of the economy.

According to the Collier Resources Company website, “The Collier family conveyed more than 159,000 acres for the establishment and expansion of the Big Cypress National Preserve but maintained private ownership of the mineral rights.”  Because the environmental protection standard that Congress mandated when creating the Preserve in 1974 allows “…reasonable use and enjoyment of privately owned oil and gas interests,” Collier maintains the right to explore and drill for oil and gas within this “protected” wildlife area.

The area known as the Sunniland Trend was actually pumped dry of oil in the early 1980s and closed. Homes were built over the oil fields and families migrated to this area to live in their “paradise” called Golden Gate. Fast forward to today:  New drilling technologies, like hydraulic fracturing , can squeeze more oil and natural gas from this now populated-with-families Sunniland oil field. Additionally, the Sunniland Trend stretches from Ft. Myers to Miami and intersects the Everglades, the largest remaining sub-tropical wilderness in the lower 48 states. The Everglades are home to a broad spectrum of wildlife including aquatic birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, of which 56 species are endangered or threatened.  Human, plants and wildlife could all be affected by fracking.

Fracking also threatens the climate we all depend on. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  Drilling, fracking, processing and burning natural gas, taken together, make for an enormous “carbon footprint” for the natural gas industry, one that rivals that of coal on a 100-year time frame, and one that exceeds coal over a 20-year time frame due to the amount of methane released throughout the fracking process.

Endangered Aquifers

South Florida’s aquifers are already severely threatened by sea-level rise due to global climate change, which has been driven in large part by oil consumption. Given the grave threat to Florida posed by global climate change, and because it only takes one accident to destroy a community’s aquifer for generations, drilling in Florida is not in our best interest.

All across the country, especially in Florida, consumer, environmental, faith, social justice, farming, and community organizations are pushing back against the rush to frack. A diverse coalition is beginning to form in Florida around the message that our aquifers, our tourism industry, and our environment and public health cannot afford the risks caused by fracking.   The coalition is working to prioritize investment in efficient, renewable energy sources and in protection of the resources that support Florida’s thriving tourism and agriculture industries, instead of selling off our resources to the highest bidder.

Around the country, we have seen enough evidence of the danger that fracking poses to the environment and to public health. While the oil and gas industry continues to promote natural gas as a solution to our energy woes, drilling for natural gas is merely prolonging our dependency on destructive and inefficient fossil fuels. Industry has made exaggerated claims about how much gas would truly be available to consumers, but much of that supply would likely be transported to other nations, including China and India.   Big oil will continue to amass huge profits, while we expose our communities to the risks associated with fracking.

Consumers must to work together to help stop this dangerous form of energy extraction. The best way to get involved is to contact your representatives and demand that fracking be banned in your communities.

Comments

Dianna said ..

I am sending this to my professor at FAU

August 21, 2014
Dianna Addison said ..

Please get this message out to all of your local fishermen. Please get message out to the fish and wildlife conservations! Please get the public informed because no one has a clue how deadly this will be to Florida's wildlife and people! I have tried to send my message on Facebook ! Please add me to your Facebook acct. so that I can share your warnings! Thank you

August 21, 2014
Erin said ..

Contact your representatives. http://m.house.gov/representatives/

January 18, 2014
Judi said ..

Such insanity to pollute so much water in such a fragile ecology. The whole nation, all of humanity suffers wherever this damning technology is deployed. Shame on our Congress and President for supporting this, shane on all stste governments too. Definitely NOT government by the people for the people.Corruption througout!

January 8, 2014
Ray DiZefalo said ..

Kudos to Lynna Kaucheck for her factual, insightful and persuasive presentation detailing the dangers inherent in 'fracking'.

August 9, 2013
J Kul said ..

Why spend so much money and take such risks when there are other less risky less costly forms available for recovering energy? Where is the intelligence in this?

August 9, 2013
Scott said ..

We need to do what we can to prevent this "fracking" from destroying not only our natural areas for the wildlife but for humans safety as well. S Florida's water is reliant on these aquafers to be able to drink fresh water...once it's gone the only thing left is bottled water!

August 8, 2013

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