The Fracking of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring’s lost legacy, told in fifty parts

The Fracking of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring’s lost legacy, told in fifty parts by Sandra Steingraber, September/October 2012 issue, Orion magazine
8. High-volume, slickwater, horizontal hydrofracking would be considered a crime if the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates underground chemical injections, pertained.

11. You can think of fracking as a hostage exchange program. A drill bit opens a hole a mile deep, turns sideways, and then, like a robotic mole, tunnels horizontally through the shale bedrock for another mile or more. The hole is lined with steel pipe and cement. To initiate the fracturing process, explosives are sent down it. Then, fresh water (millions of gallons per well) is injected under high pressure to further break up the shale and shoot acids, biocides, friction reducers, and sand grains deep into the cracks. Trapped for 400 million years, the gas is now free to flow through the propped-open fractures up to the surface, where it is condensed, compressed, and sent to market via a network of pipelines. The water remains behind.

14. Actually, only some of the frack water stays behind in the shale. The rest, now mixed with brine and radioactivity, shoots up to the surface with the gas. Finding a safe place to dispose of this toxic flowback is an unsolved problem. Sometimes, the waste from drilling is just dumped on the ground. That’s illegal, but it happens. Sometimes the waste is dumped down other holes. In 2010, 200,000 gallons were poured down an abandoned well on the edge of Allegheny National Forest. Much of the flowback fluid is trucked to northeast Ohio, where it is forced, under pressure, into permeable rock via deep injection wells. This practice, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has concluded, is the likely cause of the unusual swarm of earthquakes that shook northeast Ohio in 2011.

17. They are fracking Allegheny County.

26. April 2012 was a silent spring in Pennsylvania. Funds for a statewide heath registry—which would track illnesses in residents who live near drilling and fracking operations—were quietly removed from the state budget. At the same time, a new state law, Act 13, went into effect, which allows a physician in Pennsylvania access to proprietary chemical information for purposes of treating a possibly exposed patient—but only if he or she signs a confidentiality agreement. Confounded, Pennsylvania doctors began asking questions. Does that mean no contacting the public health department? What about talking to reporters or writing up case studies for the New England Journal of Medicine? Can a physician who signs the nondisclosure agreement (in order to treat a patient) and then issues an alert to the community at large (in order to fulfill an ethical obligation to prevent harm) be sued for breach of contract? The president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society registered her objections, to which Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Sam Smith furiously counter-objected. Denying that Act 13 constitutes a medical gag order, Smith’s spokesman accused objecting doctors of yelling fire in a crowded theater.
27. Still waiting for the Pennsylvania Medical Society to point out that, verily, the theater is burning.
28. Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1960, although she would not find out until the following December. Her physician did not tell her the results of the biopsy. Her cancer rapidly metastasized. With her next surgeon, she insisted on full disclosure. She knew the news would not be good. Nevertheless, she wrote to him in February 1963, “I still believe in the old Churchillian determination to fight each battle as it comes. (‘We will fight on the beaches—’ etc.)”
29. In 2011, Chesapeake Energy, a top producer of natural gas, was a corporate sponsor of the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition. In response to questions about possible conflicts of interest, the coalition’s executive director Heather Hibshman said, “I’m not a scientist. I’m not a researcher. I run a nonprofit. I’m going to leave it at that.” Hibshman also said that she was unaware of any correlations between fracking and breast cancer.

36. Says Businessweek, “The preferred way to dispose of the brine and fracking fluid . . . is to pump it out of sight, out of mind into deep, cavernous wells.” At last count, Ohio, with its permeable bedrock, has 176 such wells into which 511 million gallons of flowback waste have been injected.

41. No comprehensive study on the human or animal health impacts of fracking has ever been conducted. However, using a case study approach, veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Cornell biochemist Robert Oswald have been studying the impact of gas drilling on livestock, horses, pets, wildlife, and people who live in the gaslands of Pennsylvania. Nondisclosure agreements, trade secrets, litigation, and a general atmosphere of intimidation make their investigation difficult. So far, as described in a paper published in the environmental policy journal New Solutions, the team has documented widespread evidence of health and reproductive problems. In cattle exposed to fracking fluid: stillborn calves, cleft palates, milk contamination, death.
42. In cats and dogs: seizures, stillbirths, fur loss, vomiting.
43. In humans: headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, vomiting.
44. In a private letter, Rachel Carson suggested another explanation for the prevalence of pollution. Scientists are cowards. Especially scientists who work in government agencies. The ones who are privy to the disconnect between the state of the scientific evidence and the policies that ignore that evidence. The ones who stay silent when they should be blowing whistles.

If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us. —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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