Deb Nardone does a lot of traveling. As campaign director for the Sierra Club’s natural gas reform campaign, she goes to the places where fracking is prolific, speaking to affected families.
When she’s in Pennsylvania, she’s most often in poor, rural townships — like Dimock, in Susquehanna county.
“There’s one family we met with where she turns her tap water on and it’s brown, spewing, smelling — she never had any water issues before they began fracking a well so close to her home,” Nardone told ThinkProgress. “The industry is saying they’re not responsible.”
Whether the industry is responsible or not, new research makes it clear: If you see a fracking site in Pennsylvania, chances are it’s in a poor, rural community. In a study published in the June issue of Applied Geography, Clark University scientists showed that when it comes to potential pollution exposure from fracking, “the poor are the most affected population group.”
“Our analysis shows that environmental injustice was observed only in Pennsylvania, particularly with respect to poverty,” the study reads. “In seven out of nine analyses, potentially exposed tracts had significantly higher percent of people below poverty level than non-exposed tracts.”
The petroleum industry says this is a good thing — not the potential pollution exposure (which it disputes), but the fact that fracking operations are located in poorer, more rural communities.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in rural Pennsylvania,” Joe Massaro, field director and spokesperson for the petroleum industry group Energy In Depth, told ThinkProgress. “When you look at the income in these areas, it’s all farming. A lot of average income for these farmers falls below the poverty line.”
According to Massaro, fracking is able to provide income for these communities — not just with jobs, but with tax incentives and fees set by the state of Pennsylvania. Specifically, Massaro mentioned “impact fees,” a sort of tax imposed on the natural gas industry, where the money goes directly back to affected communities. Bradford County, for example, received $8.2 million from impact fees in 2012, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
“So in turn, they’ve been able to fund projects and lower property taxes,” he said. “Farmers can buy new equipment, pay off debts … in a way it’s a blessing for these communities.”
Nardone disagrees. She says the industry operates on a “boom or bust cycle” — in other words, the good money only lasts for so long. And when it comes to jobs, she says they’re dangerous. Indeed, the fatality rate for workers in onshore oil and gas drilling is seven times higher than the average job, and injuries are far more common. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, there are also various health concerns for fracking workers, including exposure to hydrogen sulfide, silica, and diesel particulate matter.
Still, though oil and gas prices have been plummeting and causing worker layoffs across the country, Pennsylvania is still doing relatively well jobs-wise.
Pollution- and health-wise are different stories, Nardone says, and those are the key facets of environmental justice complaints. It’s the poor, she says, who are so often exposed to health and environmental threats in Pennsylvania, while the well-off are not.
The new research points to several peer-reviewed studies which have explored the potential impacts of fracking on public health. The studies showed the potential for air pollution resulting from drilling, processing, and gas leaks, particularly when companies are not operating responsibly. In addition, they noted that increased traffic from trucks can cause elevated air and noise pollution. Noise pollution can lead to hypertension, sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular disease.
Massaro disputes those studies. “Any industrial industry when it’s not done correctly will have negative affects. Every industry is like that,” he said, asserting that Pennsylvania’s industry has been operating responsibly. He noted a study recently done by the state Department of Environmental Protection showing that, while emissions have increased in the natural gas sector, air quality has been improving across the state. He also noted that Pennsylvania lacks private water well regulations, meaning naturally-occurring contaminants can seep into improperly constructed water wells, giving the impression of fracking pollution.
The issue with that, according to Nardone, is that poor communities don’t have the money to afford water sampling which could prove contamination came from fracking. She noted the family in Dimock with the brown, smelly tap water. They can’t prove fracking caused the contamination, she said, because they could not afford water sampling before the nearby drilling operations began.
“So now they have a water buffalo, a great big white tank full of 300 or 400 gallons, and they rely on community donations to help pay for their water truck to come and deliver water so they can have drinking water,” she said. “They’re still bathing and showering in it, though.”