Studies Find California "Fracking" Wells May Kill Livestock, Family Pets

Posted on 24 January 2013

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By Dan Aiello

As the deadline for public comment on California Governor Jerry Brown, Jr.'s proposed new regulations on fracking are set to close in just seven days, reports are surfacing of the potential impact on the state's agriculture, farm animals and family pets from this controversial method of oil extraction.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," is an oil extraction process used on shale, depleted wells and tar-like "heavy" oil deposits. The production process involves the injection of steam, water, sand and rocket propellant into the ground to bubble to the surface the oil reserves. It has been known to make fertile California farmland barren and contaminate groundwater tables.

Brown, a Democrat, wants to expand the number of fracking permits in order to maintain the state's oil production rank despite the fact California is the only state in the union and only government in the world that assesses no severance royalty or tax on the removal of its finite resources. California was once the second biggest producer of oil. Because of its depleted Kern County wells, it now ranks 4th.

The state's environmentalists, however, are warning of the potential harm a new fracking boom - set to take off once Brown's new draft regulations are approved - will mean to the state's cattle, sheep and dairy industry, its wildlife and even to California's pet population with a report showing that in six other states, fracking and animals don't mix.

In California, many homeowners do not own mineral rights and in at least six counties fracking might literally be coming to their own backyard.

In a Cornell University study from its school of veterinary medicine its authors reported dozens of cases of illness, death and reproductive issues in dairy cows, horses, goats, sheep, llamas and chickens in rural settings, as well as dogs and cats in suburban areas and fish and other wildlife in wilderness, state and national parks. It also reported similar health effects on humans.

The study, authored by Robert Oswald, Professor of molecular medicine at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine and school alum, Michelle Bamberger, DVM, examined the claims of animal owners seeking answers to the death or ailments of animals in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania Louisians, Colorado and Texas.

Oswald and Bamberger found 24 cases where animals were likely affected by exposure to fracking operations.

The study, published in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, stated that, while likely, making a direct link between death and illness is not possible at this time because of inadequate data due to the proprietary secrecy of gas drilling companies regarding the chemicals used in hydrofracking, and non-disclosure agreements that seal testimony and evidence when lawsuits are settled.

"We have a number of case studies," wrote Oswald. "They don't tell us about the prevalence of problems associated with hydraulic fracturing, but they do tell us how things can happen."

Among Oswald's and Bamberger's findings:

  • Seventeen cows died within an hour of direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid in Louisiana. A necropsy report listed respiratory failure with circulatory collapse as the most likely cause of death.
  • In an eery similarity to the beginning of the movie classic, Tulsa, a farmer separated his herd of cows into two groups: 60 were in a pasture with a creek where hydrofracking wastewater was allegedly dumped; 36 were in separate fields without creek access. Of the 60 cows exposed to the creek water, 21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. None of the 36 cows in separated fields had health problems, though one cow failed to breed in the spring.
  • Seventy of 140 dairy cows died after exposure to hydrofracking fluid when wastewater ponds were allegedly slit, and the fluid drained into a pasture and a pond in order to make room for more toxic "produced" water in the "holding" pond.
  • In the case of the Cornell study, farmers saw oil workers cut away the liner to decrease the amount of liquid in the impoundment in order to refill it," said Bamberger. "We have heard it now on several occasions." Of the 70 cows that survived there were high incidences of stillborn and stunted calves born.

The animals studied by Oswald and Bamberger were exposed directly to the wastewater produced by fracking, or to groundwater or well water contaminated by fracking produced water.

In a California case, Aera v. Starrh, corporate executive's decision to cut production cost by not lining wastewater holding ponds, similar to one made by energy producer Pacific Gas and Electric executives depicted in the movie "Erin Brockovich," resulted in contaminated well water that left acres of orchards and every living creature dead after Almond farmer Fred Starrh turned on his well pump for a spring watering. After two trials, Starrh was awarded $8.5 million by a Kern County jury in the heart of California oil country.

In California's Kern County, as much as 8 barrels of potable California drinking water are used to produce a single barrel of oil. The produced water then becomes a carcinogenic "toxic soup" and must be contained and prevented from migrating into the ground by keeping it in lined ponds to evaporate into the air. In the Kern County fracking case of Aera v. Starrh, the company executives knowingly violated California's existing state regulations and chose to cut costs by not lining the ponds, contaminating irreparably local groundwater supplies. Both PG&E and Aera executives made these choices knowing California's oil industry is highly regulated but largely unmonitored with few inspectors in the field to enforce state law. California's lack of a severance tax means the state has no money for enforcement or environmental repair.

Brown's proposal of new regulations did not include any mention of increased inspection or enforcement of an industry with deep pockets and a strong lobby in Sacramento.

In all cases studied in the Cornell report produced water, whether through ingestion, respiration or skin contact, affected all of the animals that did not die immediately. In each case the animal experienced major neurological, digestive, respiratory and reproductive problems.

The authors note that the "most striking finding" of their study was how difficult it was to get solid information on the link between hydrofracking and health effects.

To provide better assessments of health impacts, the researchers recommend:

  • Prohibiting nondisclosure agreements when public health is at stake;
  • increasing food safety testing and research, as the study documented that animals exposed to chemicals were not tested prior to slaughter, and little is known about the effects of hydrofracking chemicals on meat and dairy products;
  • improving the monitoring of routes of exposure, including in water, soil and air; and, most importantly,
  • fully testing the air, water, soil and animals prior to drilling and at regular intervals after drilling is completed, and disclosing fully the chemicals used when hydrofracking.

In California, an independent study by the Pacific Institute funded by 11th Hour, found one common thread among both proponents and opponents of fracking: concern over the potential harm to California's water supply.

"Despite the diversity of viewpoints among the stakeholders interviewed, there was surprising agreement about the range of concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing. Among the most commonly cited were concerns about spills and leaks, wastewater management, and water withdrawals," said Heather Cooley, co-director of the Pacific Institute Water Program. "In addition to concerns about impacts on water resources, social and economic concerns were identified as well, such as worker health and safety and community impacts associated with rapidly industrializing rural environments."

The growth in natural gas production is driven by a dramatic increase in domestic shale gas production, and by 2021, the United States is projected to be a net exporter of natural gas (U.S. EIA 2012). The rapid development of unconventional natural gas resources - such as shale - has been largely facilitated through the use of directional (horizontal) drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Hailed by some for a promise of increased energy independence, the creation of some California jobs (though this much-hyped issue by the oil and gas industry is contradicted by Forbes Magazine, which cites the industry as employing the lowest number of people to profit ratio of any U.S. industry), and higher oil corporation profits, the study said, "fracking has led others to call for a temporary moratorium or a complete ban due to concern over potential environmental, social, and public health impacts.

The research finds that the lack of credible and comprehensive data and information is a major impediment to a robust analysis of the real concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing.

"Much of what has been written about the interaction of hydraulic fracturing and water resources is either industry or advocacy reports that have not been peer-reviewed, and the discourse around the issue to date has been marked by opinion and obfuscation," said Cooley. "More and better research is needed to clearly assess the key water-related risks associated with hydraulic fracturing and develop sound policies to minimize those risks."

Based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the Institute produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity - in the West, nationally, and internationally.

There are at least six California counties in which fracking is likely to proliferate. These counties are home to approximately 100 California native plants and animals on the endangered species list. These species are already struggling against extinction -- fracking would only compound their troubles.

California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are set to begin the proposed new fracking rules in February, setting the stage for a proliferation of fracking operations.

Some California fracking facts:

  • Just one fracking rig in Kern County uses 1.46 million gallons of California aqueduct water every week.
  • A cumulative 2.8 trillion gallons of Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta estuary water have been conveyed south at taxpayer expense only to be turned to a highly toxic produced wastewater by state resource or severance tax-exempt California fracking operations just in Kern County, to date.
  • Southern California counties, like Kern, claim Northern California's Delta estuary must be drained another 7 million acre feet of water for reliable drinking water needs at a cost to California taxpayers of $15 billion dollars.
  • The Sacramento/ San Joaquin Delta is endangered and currently under attack again, this time under the euphemistically titled, "Bay Delta Conservation Plan," for 7 million more acre feet of water that tax-exempt water profiteering oil producing interests want for fracking purposes. Claiming Southern California needs water reliability, they ignore the fact that the water is for more development, congestion, traffic, smog and a proliferation of oil fracking interests, potentially diminishing the quality of life further, not ensuring reliable drinking water.
  • California remains the only government in the world, the only state in the union, not to charge any severance tax for the extraction of its oil deposits. The state does not benefit from the extraction of its oil reserves and has no fund to clean up environmental damage caused by its extraction, production or transport.
  • Stagnant fracking wastewater ponds have been cited as the source ponds for mosquitos carrying the West Nile Virus in all six California counties where Fracking is currently taking place in the last two years.

California oil and gas producers and the nation's oil and gas industry have said the method of fracking is safe, environmentally neutral to the ground above and water below and is necessary for a nation with an economy dependent on oil and gas. The secrecy environmentalists complain about, explain industry lawyers and lobbyists, are proprietary secrets for competitive advantage, not cloaked for political advantage.

The public has until January 31, 2013 to email their comments and concerns to their legislators and the DOGGR.

Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report. 's jeremy miller has written extensively on this issue as well. Good job on getting the word out to Californians that if they want their voice to be heard they must email DOC by january 31st or at the ballot bix next year!

If the proposal goes ahead--and we do need more fuel--then at least the state should impose a heavy severance royalty or tax.