It was just before summer vacation in 2012 when a company named Encana began to drill for natural gas between two elementary schools in Erie, Colorado using the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The eight gas wells sat about 1,600 feet from the Red Hawk and Erie schools, where a combined 750 children attend.
Worried parents tried hard to stop the project, but they failed. So they braced for the prospect of sending their kids to learn at a place where benzene emissions could sicken their developing lungs; where an accident could trigger a deadly explosion; where school buses could collide with trucks carrying toxic wastewater; where leaks of the chemical-laden wastewater could poison their wells.
All of those things could have happened. None of them did.
Parents in the Erie area attribute the fact that nothing happened to their tenacity. Led by four moms, locals partnered with national environmental and health groups to mobilize. They held protest rallies that drew hundreds, delivered 21,000 anti-fracking petitions to Encana, and attracted swarms of media attention.
“We put so much pressure on Encana, the wells that they wound up putting by the schools were like, the cleanest operation you can do,” said April Beach, an Erie mother of three who co-founded Erie Rising and led the charge against the project. “They did everything we asked except for not drilling those wells.”
To appease its opponents, Encana agreed to use what’s widely considered the most expensive, but safest way to frack — a process known a “closed-loop” system. During fracking, companies blast high-pressure fracking fluid down a drilled well to crack underground shale rock formations to make oil and gas easier to extract. In a closed-loop system, the fluid never touches the ground, fumes are contained in steel tanks, and use of fresh water is significantly reduced. Encana also agreed to drill only during summer vacation, and diverted truck traffic to drive around school property instead of in front of it.
Red Hawk’s happy ending is just one story of oil and gas extraction near schools across the country. But what happened there doesn’t happen everywhere. In many communities where fracking operations are proposed near schools, parents aren’t given the opportunity to protest; they often don’t have the time, they don’t have the money, and they don’t know whom to call. Regulations on how far away drilling must take place from schools differ in every state. Race, income, and social vulnerability all play pivotal roles.
“Red Hawk was a really special circumstance. [Encana] rose to the occasion,” Beach said. “The problem we have now is that I’ve never heard of that happening to that quality level near any other school.”
Fracking’s Field Day
Aside from Red Hawk, there are many other grade schools across the country with fracking operations nearby. In Colorado, for example, there are nearly 200 active and proposed gas wells within 2,000 feet of a public school, 931 oil and gas wells within one mile of a school, and 26 wells within 1,000 feet of a school. These wells can be any type of oil or gas drilling, but it’s likely that they’re mostly fracked, as 95 percent of new oil and gas wells in Colorado use the process, the Bureau of Land Management notes.
Colorado has a limit on how close a well pad can be to a school — 350 feet in urban areas, and 150 feet in rural areas. But in other states where fracking is rampant, there are no setback limits. One of those states is California, where 352,724 students attend school within one mile of oil and gas well, according to data compiled by Kyle Ferrar at FracTracker.org and released Tuesday.
Setback limits are different in every state, and little is known about how states decide what distance is safe. What is known is that the differing limits give American children unequal protection from the potentially detrimental effects of fracking near their classrooms and playgrounds. In Pennsylvania, children have the protection of at least 500 feet. In Texas, they only have 200.
It’s not just the difference in setback limits that make children unequal in how well they’re protected from the potential risks associated with fracking. A community’s income level, social vulnerability, and race affect the ability of concerned parents to put enough pressure on companies to make sure they’re operating responsibly, or whether they’re operating at all.
Take Erie, for example, where more than 90 percent of people are white. A large majority of the town — 71 percent — is made up of married families, with a median income of $108,058. Ninety percent of residents speak fluent English and almost no one is on public assistance.
Now compare that to Shafter, California, where at least three oil wells owned by a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum are being fracked within 400 feet of Sequoia Elementary, a Kindergarten through 6th grade school with attendance of about 750 kids. In Shafter, 82 percent of the population is Hispanic, and the median household income for Hispanics is $32,000.
Unlike the situation in Erie, there is no evidence that Occidental is using a closed-loop system in Shafter; no evidence that it is diverting truck traffic, or limiting the time-frame in which drilling occurs.
Coincidentally or not, some parents of Sequoia kids have complained of their kids suffering headaches, dizziness, and nausea. More alarming complaints have popped up as well, according to Juan Flores and Madeline Pano of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, who both work closely with families in Shafter: A 12-year old student experiencing epileptic attacks; a nine-year-old student diagnosed with prostate cancer; an 11-year-old student who died from a mysterious illness that four hospitals could not diagnose.
“Community members are questioning, why are these things happening in this community?” Flores said. “Why are kids getting sick?”
To be sure, it’s not even close to certain that kids are getting sick or dying because of nearby natural gas operations. Illnesses could be random, hereditary, or they could be caused by other environmental factors in Shafter. Along with its close proximity to the gas wells, Sequoia Elementary is also sandwiched between two major highways, and surrounded by industrial mega-farms that spray pesticides and herbicides. In fact, Kern County, in which Shafter is located, has been singled out by the American Lung Association as the place with the most deadly air pollution in the country.
Race, Poverty, And Pollution
The anecdotal observation that non-white communities like Shafter are more vulnerable to fracking near its schools than white communities like Erie is supported by Ferrar’s data. By comparing oil well data sets from the California Department of Conservation Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources with state school district and enrollment demographic data, Ferrar found a strong correlation between the number of oil and gas wells near California schools and the number of Hispanic and non-white students enrolled.
In California itself, 79 percent of the more than 350,000 kids who live within a mile of an oil and gas well are non-white, while 60 percent are Hispanic. When wells are even closer to the schools — half a mile away — the percentages stay about the same: 77 percent of students are non-white, while 59 percent are Hispanic. Ferrar’s data showed that as the number of non-white students in a school district increases, so do the number of oil and gas wells.
“Results of the statistical tests showed that the number of active/new oil and gas wells within school districts and near schools increases with the percentage of non-white or Hispanic students enrolled in the school,” Ferrar wrote. “Similar significant correlations also exist when the data is limited to just the wells that have been stimulated.”
There are several factors that contribute to making some communities more vulnerable than others. In Kern County, where most of California’s drilling activity occurs, more than 50 percent of the population is Hispanic, 41 percent speak a language other than English while at home, and 22 percent of residents live below the poverty line — about seven percent more than California’s overall average.
Compare those demographics to Erie, Colorado’s, and you might see a possible explanation for why Erie parents were able to force responsible fracking near their kids’ schools, and why it would appear that Shafter parents barely tried in comparison.
“[In Erie], they already have their good housing, they don’t have to worry about voter suppression, they don’t have to worry about bad public transportation,” said Leslie Fields, the environmental justice program director at Sierra Club. “That’s the thing about environmental justice. It’s just one more thing in the bag.”
It’s not that Shafter parents don’t want to do something about the natural gas drilling near their kids’ elementary school. It’s that many don’t have the time to do it — and even if they did have the time, they wouldn’t know where to start, according to Gustavo Aguirre, a community coordinator at the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network (KEEN) who has spent the last two years working with Hispanic families in Kern. Aguirre says the majority of people he knows in Shafter work for the agricultural industry, which demands a great deal of their time for not a great deal of money.
“These people wake up at 4 in the morning, they take their kids to a babysitter at 5, they come back at 3 p.m. and pick up their kids,” he said. “They’re living off of minimum wage, sometimes lower, and they have to deal with coming home, preparing food for their children and for tomorrow, their home chores.”
“They see a flare, they’re like, who cares?” he continued. “I have so many things going on in my life.”
It’s not just a lack of time, either. A problematic language barrier in Kern County and other heavily Hispanic areas can also prevent residents from knowing enough about oil and gas operations to make an informed decision about whether it’s posing a threat to their health or environment. Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Latino advocacy group Presente, said this is succinctly represented by the fact that there is not currently a Spanish translation for the word “fracking.”
“The issue of fracking is a complicated, very technical issue,” Carmona said. “Many members of our community do not fully understand it.”
The language, and therefore educational, barrier in Latino communities like Shafter extends beyond just understanding what fracking is and how it works. Aguirre pointed out that many community members don’t know whom they should contact if they are having a problem with, say, a nearby wastewater pit they believe might be leaking contaminants into their groundwater.
“How does local government work? What bodies of government govern what? What is a Shafter city meeting about? They don’t know who to contact to make complaints,” Aguirre said. “These people are already preoccupied with trying to see their families, trying to survive — they have this whole other world they’re dealing with where they don’t have time for this.”
Vulnerable Schools, Vulnerable Kids
Because of its high percentage of minority groups and relatively low percentage of people who speak English as their primary language, the town of Shafter is likely to be considered “socially vulnerable” — at least as defined by researchers at the University of North Texas who have studied the social vulnerability of Texas neighborhoods that have gas wells near schools.
When measuring a community’s social vulnerability, a range of factors are taken into account: What percentage of people are below the poverty line? How many single-parent households are there? Is there a large percentage of minorities or non-English speaking people?
According to research led by UNT geography professor Chetan Tiwari, areas that are socially vulnerable tend to have more gas wells near schools than areas that are not.
At least in northern Texas, gas drilling near schools happens in predominantly rural communities with a medium amount of social vulnerability, the research shows. Specifically, those moderately vulnerable areas are more likely to have gas wells between 500 and 1,000 feet to their elementary schools.
High vulnerability, inner-city areas are not more likely to contain gas wells, Tiwari found, but the wells there are far more likely to be in denser clusters surrounding the schools.
Tiwari’s hypothesis for why the most vulnerable inner-cities aren’t more likely to have gas wells near schools is that those places are already too industrialized to add more development. Non-vulnerable, affluent communities — such as Erie, Colorado — are most likely not to have operations near their kids.
Solving The Problem
Tiwari acknowledges that more research needs to be done to determine the extent of how socioeconomic status and social vulnerability impact children’s proximity to oil and gas operations while they’re at school, both in Texas and across the country. The Texas research, for example, is only preliminary, and based on data provided by the Texas Planning Commission, which Tiwari said was missing data on a number of gas wells he knows exist.
To determine the impact nationwide, more data needs to be available on the location of oil and gas wells, whether they are fracked, and how far away they are set back from schools. At the moment, there are no accessible statewide databases to monitor fracking near local schools, much less one that tracks the practice on a national scale. There are some state databases on how much drilling has happened, but it’s not enough, according to Ferrar.
“The biggest issue is the information that isn’t reported,” Ferrar said, noting that while there are currently more than 1.1 million active oil and gas wells in the U.S., most states don’t require companies to disclose whether or not they are fracked. The majority of states also don’t have public data on proximity of wells to schools. “If we had the data, I could map it in a moment’s time,” he said. “But we don’t have the widespread regulations in place to provide us with what we need for these very basic maps.”
In the meantime, Carmona recommends the environmental community do more to educate Hispanic and other non-English speaking populations about fracking, its possible impacts, and who to go to if they have a problem.
“When you look at the environmental movement leading the fight against fracking, and you look for Spanish content on fracking, you don’t really find it,” Carmona said. “When you’re not producing the type of informative and educational content that the impacted communities need to see, that’s a problem.”
A little education could go a long way in helping communities put pressure on oil companies to ensure fracking operations near their children’s schools are safe, Carmona said. According to a New University of Southern California poll from 2013, Hispanic communities overwhelmingly support environmental controls on fracking when they are educated about the practice.
In fact, Hispanic communities educated about fracking are even more likely to act within the interests of the environment than whites. According to the poll, 55 percent of Latinos favor an immediate and outright ban on the technique, compared to only 42 percent of whites, and 64 percent of Latinos support a ban that can be lifted after an environmental study, compared to only 56 percent of whites who support the same.
Aguirre, whose work includes teaching Shafter residents how to report environmental hazards, agrees that more needs to be done to increase accessible, Spanish-language educational content on fracking.
“It’s not an accident that in black and Hispanic communities that there’s toxic facilities, oil production, biomass facilities,” he said. “It’s systematically created like that … We have a responsibility to change it.”