by Scott Cannon Dr. Conrad Volz displayed a photograph of brine- and chemical-laden natural gas wastewater pouring into a western Pennsylvania stream from a treatment facility in Josephine.
"This has to be stopped," he declared. "This is a public health emergency."
Volz, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, came to Misericordia University on Monday at the request of the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition to speak about the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling on public health.
Recent revelations by The New York Times that improperly treated wastewater containing brine, radioactive material and other harmful substances is finding its way into the state's bodies of water, along with the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority's consideration of a treatment facility in Hanover Township and two potential natural gas metering stations near the Dallas schools made the presentation timely.
Two main problems with natural gas drilling is the potential for explosions and blowouts at wells, compressor stations and pipelines, and the fact that the state often allows drilling wastewater to get into the environment after inadequate treatment, according to Volz.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves sending millions of gallons of chemical-treated water to open cracks in the shale and release the gas. In addition to the chemicals, the water picks up salts, naturally occurring radioactive material, barium, magnesium and various other volatile organic compounds.
These combine with nitrogen oxides to form ozone, which Volz said can irritate the lungs and worsen asthma and respiratory infections. Volatile organic compounds are also carcinogenic. One of them, strontium, replaces calcium in the body, weakening the bones, Volz said.
Chemicals from drilling can be inhaled or ingested when they get into the air and water. The cement in well casings can be damaged by the salt, allowing methane gas and chemicals to migrate into groundwater.
Compressor engine exhaust is a significant source of nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds, as well as fine particles that can be inhaled deep in the lungs, Volz said.
Since natural gas drilling is relatively new to the area, people are only starting to be exposed, and environment-related cancers take 15 to 30 years to develop, Volz said. He cited Louisiana, where the petroleum industry is well established - parts of the state are called "cancer alley" as a result of higher lung, liver and other cancers associated with the industry.
"It all comes in one package, my friends. You take the money, you take the cancer, too," he said.
Volz said natural gas drilling or related facilities should not be allowed near schools, hospitals or critical infrastructure. Billions of dollars have been spent to take toxic materials like asbestos out of schools - "and that wasn't the risk this is," he said.
"Serious, serious, serious" health problems result from drilling wastewater, Volz said. He showed photographs from a study he had done at a brine processing facility in Josephine, where improperly treated water was allowed to pour into a nearby stream. He said people with private wells within 100 feet of the stream could be affected - and so could people in cities like Freeport, Oakmont and even Pittsburgh if the pollutants find their way into the sources of water systems.
Volz repeatedly reminded people the situation is political, urging them to vote out lawmakers who don't do what the people want.
Samantha Malone, communications specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, demonstrated the blog she developed, fractracker.org. It combines data from different state and federal agencies, allowing people to map what is going on in their communities.