An earthquake in NYC? What the frack?

by Adam

Truth be told, I didn’t even feel the earthquake that hit New York City on August 23…but I sure felt the (corporate and social) media aftershocks.


Frack This

Missing from almost all post-quake reportage was any mention of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale watershed—a black shale formation extending deep underground from Ohio and West Virginia northeast into Pennsylvania and southern New York.


Hydraulic fracturing is a process by which oil and gas are extracted from underground reserves. It’s known as “fracking” and it’s nothing new. “Injecting fluid (a mixture of water, sand, and highly toxic chemicals) under high pressure into oil and gas wells—has been used for years,” explains the Marcellus Accountibility Project for Tompkins Country (MAP-Tompkins). “It was developed by Halliburton in the late 1940s.”


Yeah…those guys.


More about Halliburton shortly but first let’s focus on the latest version of fracking, e.g. “slick-water hydraulic fracturing,” also known as “high-volume” hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), which uses much more fluid than old hydraulic fracturing


“In old hydrofracking,” MAP-Tompkins states, “typically 20,000 to 80,000 gallons of fluid were used each time a well was hydrofractured, but HVHF uses 2 to 7.8 million gallons of fluid (on average 5.6 million), the exact amount depending on the length of the well bore and the number of fractures created along it.”


Using 70 to 300 times more fluid than old hydrofracking means, naturally, more chemicals.


Old hydrofracking: 700 to 2,800 lbs. of chemical additives

HVHF: 205,000 to 935,000 lbs. of chemical additives


Besides utilizing more potential toxins, there are other adverse impacts of HVHF, as MAP-Tompkins reminds us:


  • More Toxic Waste Requiring Disposal
  • More Truck Traffic
  • More Fresh Water Used
  • More Drill Cuttings Requiring Disposal
  • Larger Disturbed Areas


Toxic Brew

Slick water hydrofracking, explains Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database firm in Ithaca, New York, “involves horizontal drilling. So they drill down, and then they drill through the rock layer, and then they force incredibly highly pressurized water that’s got a lot of additives, and this fractures the rock. This then lets the gas out, and then they retrieve it.”


When the water is drawn out of such a deep rock formation, Hang adds, “there’s radon, there’s uranium, so the water that comes out is radioactive, as well as toxic-contaminated.”


Radioactive and toxic-contaminated water? How is this possible?


Fracking, says environmental journalist, Rachel Cernansky, “relies on what companies call proprietary chemical mixes to enable and increase their access to wells. The chemicals have not been extensively studied because the companies are not required to disclose information about them.”


The process, adds Cernansky, “contaminates water in unpredictable (and barely studied) ways. Across the country, water polluted by fracking has killed cows, deer, and fish. Some of the chemicals used are known carcinogens, in some cases causing extremely rare types of tumors.”


Because of the inherent difficult in establishing a causal link with the chemicals, oil and gas companies deny any responsibility for ill health effects, although, as Cernansky points out, “epidemiological studies (show) clear hot spots of endocrine disorders in regions where fracking occurs.”


Despite decades of denials from the industries involved, Democracy Now reports that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s own database of hazardous substances spills (compiled over the past thirty years) includes “270 cases documenting fires, explosions, wastewater spills, well contamination and ecological damage related to gas drilling. Many of the cases remain unresolved.”


Theo Colborn, a scientist looking at the effects of these chemicals on the human body, has recently focused on one chemical in particular: 2-BE, a colorless, odorless liquid that can actually dissolve red blood cells. It dissolves the fat in the cell membrane, causing the membrane to break down. Next comes the bloody eyes, bloody noses, and blood in the urine.


2-BE, Cernansky writes, “has been found to cause retinal detachment in mice and other eye damage and also harms the liver, spleen, bones in the spinal column, bone marrow, and can cause kidney failure. Long-term exposure can lead to anemia and in laboratory animals has caused insufficient blood supply and tail necrosis, meaning an animal’s tail actually just rots away.”


2-BE is just one of hundreds of chemicals used in fracking. A few are known (arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, benzene) but most are not—thanks to the “Halliburton Loophole.”


We’re Getting Fracked by Halliburton

Here’s how SourceWatch explains this ongoing corporate crime:


The industry lobbied the Bush Administration and Congress with its claims that the ‘fracking fluid’ should be considered ‘proprietary’ and exempt from disclosure under federal drinking water protection laws. Led by Halliburton and aided by the former CEO of Halliburton, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the industry obtained this exception in the law along with favorable treatment by political appointees and regulators in the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result of the ‘Halliburton loophole’ to the law, drilling companies have not been required to divulge the cocktail of chemicals that are in the fracking fluids used at each of the proposed or continuing drill sites across the country.


The exemption made an end run around the Safe Water Drinking Act, which was passed in 1974 to ensure clean drinking water free from both natural and man-made contaminates.


“A well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium,” writes Ian Urbina in The New York Times. “Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.” However, says Urbina, it seems “the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.”


According to documents obtained by the Times, the wastewater, “which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water,” often contains radioactivity at levels “higher than previously known,” and that “many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water.”


“The EPA has decided the best way to ensure no one panics about radioactive drinking water is by not testing for it,” Tom Laskway reports in Grist while his colleague Christopher Mims details how Pittsburgh’s drinking water is radioactive, thanks to fracking. “Residents of Pittsburgh—as well as potentially tens of millions of other everyday citizens in the Northeast corridor who rely on their taps to deliver safe water—are consuming unknown and potentially dangerous amounts of radium in every glass of water,” writes Mims.


And then, of course, there’s the possible earthquake connection…



While a connection between fracking and the August 2011 Virginia-centered quake has not yet been established, it’s more than worthy of investigation. As the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has found: “Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations in the United States, Japan, and Canada. The cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil and the use of reservoirs for water supplies.”


“According to geologists, it isn’t the fracking itself that is linked to earthquakes, but the re-injection of waste salt water (as much as 3 million gallons per well) deep into rock beds,” writes Dr. Stuart Jeanne Bramhall in OpEd News. “Braxton County West Virginia (160 miles from the epicenter of the most recent quake) has experienced a rash of freak earthquakes (eight in 2010) since fracking operations started there several years ago.” Bramhall also notes that the frequency of Arkansas earthquakes dropped by two-thirds when the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission voted in July to ban the use of disposal wells in a region of the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.


Earthworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions, offers further evidence:


Induced seismicity, or earthquakes caused by human activities, can be caused by development of hydrocarbon, mineral, and geothermal resources, waste injection, water filling large surface reservoirs, underground nuclear explosions and large-scale construction projects. Scientists have documented direct connections between earthquakes and both oil and gas extraction and wastewater injection. Moreover, several studies demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing induces microearthquakes and that the analysis of these microearthquakes can be useful in understanding fracture zones and reservoir production rates. Recently, earthquakes have occurred more frequently in areas experiencing increased hydraulic fracturing.


Wake the Frack Up

Upon learning of the nightmare known as fracking, we might get angry. We might tell others. We might contemplate how the frack we’ve gotten to a point where giant corporations—with personhood status—can literally destroy the natural world in pursuit of profits and not only aren’t we stopping them, but we’ve also convinced ourselves that it’s not even our fight.


In a country/region under siege (say, Burma or Gaza), activism isn’t a choice. It’s a survival tactic. Here in America, however, most of us have just enough creature comforts to keep us from revolting.


Most of us are also kept on an eternal quest by a pop culture specifically designed to make us feel like somehow we’re missing out on all the good stuff. So, most of us chase the ideal life and persuade ourselves we’re too consumed (if you’ll pardon the pun) with day-to-day life to deal with anything else—even if that “anything else” is working 24/7 to make certain the future doesn’t happen for…most of us.


Yet, on some level, we all know there are no free lunches. If we want peace, justice, and solidarity, we have to work for it. If we want clean air, clean water, and safe food, it’s not going to happen without some serious, sustained rabble-rousing.


Transnational corporations (and the governments they own and control) are waging war on the eco-system with little or no opposition. As we study for our college exams, fracking happens. As we plan our weddings, fracking happens. As we drive our kids to soccer practice, fracking happens. As we remodel our kitchens, fracking happens. As we write our articles, fracking happens.


Day-to-day living doesn’t have to exclude activism but the powers-that-be are counting on this daily conflict to keep us occupied. As E.B. White once said: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”


Fortunately, Alice Walker is around to help us plan the day when she reminds us: “Activism is my rent for living on this planet.”


We are talking about a clear and present threat to our shared eco-system, our shared natural inheritance, our shared future. Of course, this is our fight.


Activist/civic time can fit into your life so why not start with an issue like fracking? Why not begin creating a legacy right now? A good first step would be to check out the 2010 documentary, Gasland. Educate yourself, organize screenings, but don’t wait another minute for you start taking action.


(For example, there will be a rally and demonstration called “Shale Gas Outrage: Confronting a Poisonous Industry” on Sept. 7-8 in response to the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s major conference in Philadelphia, PA.)



Ask not what your eco-system can do for you; ask what you can do for your eco-system.



Mickey Z. is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook.