Study by Cornell University to be released early 2018, Did Fracking sicken Tioga Downs’ foals?

Fracking study: Answers soon on sick foals of Tioga Downs owner by Tom Wilber, November 16, 2017, Press Connects

Jeff Gural talks about his foals, which mysteriously fell ill but have since made a full recovery. Staff video

When foals on Jeff Gural’s farm were born with a potentially fatal illness, the well-known casino magnate and horse breeder suspected a nearby natural gas well was a factor.

That suspicion, shared by scientists, will soon be supported or discounted by a Cornell University team that has spent two years analyzing the horses’ health and signs of chemical exposure on a molecular level. The study is scheduled for completion by early next year.

From early 2014 through early 2016, 17 foals at Gural’s farm in Bradford County, Pa., were born with dysphagia, a neurological condition rendering them unable to swallow properly. They aspirated milk while nursing, which could lead to pneumonia and death if untreated.

The problem disappeared after Chesapeake Oil and Gas shut down a well adjacent to the farm in spring 2016.

For Gural, that the problem was once pervasive and is now gone seems more than coincidence.

“Everybody wants to see, is fracking the problem?” Gural said during a recent visit to his horse farm with his wife, Paula. “The only thing we know for sure is that it’s very abnormal for that (dysphagia) to happen. If it happened once or twice, but for every horse to have that … it’s something environmental.” 

The Cornell study will tell the story gleaned from analysis of more than a thousand compounds in mares’ and foals’ placentas, blood, urine, hair and meconium, as well as samples in pastures where the horses grazed. The results are being compiled and cross-referenced with the health history of each horse.

Veterinarian Dorothy Ainsworth, project leader at the university’s veterinary school, was “still in the midst of collecting and analyzing data” and could not offer an update yet, university spokeswoman Lindsey Hadlock said Wednesday.

Chesapeake spokesman Gordon Pennoyer, had no comment.

Gural, himself, said he has heard nothing yet about results.

Best known regionally as owner of Tioga Downs Casino Racing & Entertainment complex in Nichols, Gural also operates Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Vernon Downs in Oneida County in addition to real estate operations in New York and New Jersey.

His breeding farms in New York and Pennsylvania are a special point of pride.

Allerage — inspired by the names of Gural’s children Aileen, Eric and Roger — is a short drive south from Tioga Downs into Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. At the top of one such mountain, his gabled mansion offers a commanding view of a magnificent barn and rolling pastures populated with sleek standardbreds. One, Beautiful Sin, recently sold for $480,000 — a personal record for Gural.

The questions at the core of the Cornell study raise the stakes well beyond the welfare of the prized horses, however. Could the animals’ illness signal a human health hazard from chemical fallout from gas production on nearby soil, air and water? 

The $240,000 study is funded through the National Institutes of Health, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nation’s medical research agency.

Much like canaries in a coalmine, horses living near gas wells are “sentinels” to human heath problems from toxic exposures, according to the study proposal. Because horses are especially well suited as an animal model for human diseases, “results and conclusions … have relevance to individuals living or working in close proximity to [shale gas] operations,” the proposal states.

The outcome may carry monumental implications. Unresolved questions over health impacts led to New York state’s ban on high-volume fracking in 2014.

In justifying the ban, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker cited a study showing higher rates of heart and nervous system defects in babies born to mothers who lived near gas wells in Colorado. Though not conclusive, this and other studies raised serious questions that dissuaded Gov. Andrew Cuomo from approving fracking until more is known.

‘Spent a fortune’

Much of the criticism about pollution from gas wells has focused on water. Drilling a gas well and applying high-volume hydraulic fracturing to crack bedrock and release gas can contaminate wells through spills or aquifer breaches.

Less has been reported on the invisible and often odorless emissions continually steaming from infrastructure after the well comes on line. Those impurities rise from a mile or more below the ground with the gas and are bled off at wellheads and compressor stations or escape through leaks in the system. 

Chemicals associated with gas production such as xylene, toluene [found in Lauridsen’s water after Encana’s illegal aquifer fracs] and benzene [found in the Hamlet of Rosebud’s drinking water] can move through ground and air and cross into placentas and cause fetal exposure, according to the study proposal. Others, including phthalates [found by the regulator in Rosebud’s and Ernst’s drinking water wells after Encana illegally fractured the community’s drinking water aquifers], bisphenol A and ethylene glycol, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals and neurotoxins that can affect reproductive cycles and fetal and early childhood development.

While the focus remains on fracking and shale gas development, there could be other explanations for the horses’ illnesses, ranging from wood smoke to insecticides to nutritional insufficiencies to any number of harmful elements that might end up in a water well due to naturally occurring circumstances.

Gural installed a $40,000 filtration system for the farm’s water in October 2015. Since then, staff has also changed many other aspects of the horses’ environment, ranging from stable mats to nutritional programs.

Ten gas wells are listed in DEP records within five miles of Allerage. The closest one is Struble 5H, drilled in March 2011 about 300 feet from the farm’s southern property line. Production began after it was fracked in 2012, according to DEP production records. Those records also show the well shut down in spring 2016, shortly after this news organization reported on the foals’ illnesses and the pending study.

“We’re just glad the problem is solved for now, and hopefully for good,” farm manager Ashleigh Bennett said.

Meanwhile, Gural has dropped an appeal to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board intended to press the Department of Environmental Protection to more thoroughly test and track pollution in the farm’s water well.

The DEP found water quality on the farm had not substantively changed since before drilling started.

Gural attorney Martin Siegel said Gural is taking a wait-and-see approach. That Chesapeake shut down the well “just confounds the case,” Siegel said. “You don’t know if the problem went away because the water was treated, air emissions stopped, or it was just a matter of chance.”

Gural said he spent “a fortune” treating the horses at Cornell’s world-renowned veterinary school, where foals and mothers stayed in medically equipped stalls for weeks and sometimes months under the care of Cornell staff. “They told me I was the best customer,” he added.

Gural is a conditional supporter of gas development, though he is skeptical about the way it’s regulated in Pennsylvania and the lack of federal disclosure requirements.

It is not uncommon for a gas well to be taken off line due to falling demand and weakening price, factors that tend to change over time.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they never start that well up again,” Gural said. “Unless gas prices go up considerably, why go (back to producing) a well where your neighbor had a problem?” [It happens all the time, but most “neighbours” don’t have the good fortune of having masses of money, and being focus of an intensive study]

He added, “I don’t know what they are going to do.” [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

2016 02 05: Pennsylvania, Bradford Co: Horse race track owner files appeal with Hearing Board after DEP says water contamination not linked to fracking. High percentage foals born after fracking experiencing health problems

2015 03 03: More peer-reviewed studies indicating health harm from fracing and natural gas production, Dogs “found to be particularly sensitive, suggesting both health concerns for the animals and new ways to track pollution through animals’ exposures” ]

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