Fracking sites may raise the risk of underweight babies, new study says

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/12/13/fracking-sites-raise-the-risk-of-low-birth-weight-babies-new-study-says/?utm_term=.021acebde81f

Living within half a mile of a hydraulic fracturing site carries a serious risk for pregnant women, a new study has found. The drilling technique, also known as fracking, injects high-pressure water laced with chemicals into underground rock to release natural gas.

Women who lived within that distance to fracking operations in Pennsylvania were 25 percent more likely to give birth to low-weight infants than were mothers who lived more than two miles beyond the sites.

The five-year study of more than 1.1 million births in the state between 2004 and 2013, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, also found lower birth weights, although not as low, in infants whose mothers lived between half a mile and two miles from a fracking site. Beyond two miles, there was no indication of any health effect to newborns, a significant drop-off, the study said.

“I think I was surprised by the magnitude of the impact within the half-mile radius,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, and one of three authors of the study.

There are about 4 million births per year in the United States. According to the study’s research, about 30,000 births are within half a mile of a fracking site and 100,000 are within two miles. “I don’t think that’s an insubstantial number,” Greenstone said.

Greenstone said it’s important not to read too much into the study’s conclusion. “I like to joke that there’s a little bit for everyone to hate in this paper,” he said. “There’s a big effect within one kilometer of sites, which the oil and gas industry dislikes, but the impact on the population beyond that may not be massive, which opponents of fracking won’t like.”

Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an advocacy group for the oil and gas industry, condemned the study, saying that while it addresses a legitimate health issue in the United States, it “fails to consider important factors like family history, parental health, lifestyle habits” and other factors that lead to low birth weight.

In his emailed statement, Porter did not address why those factors might have led to underweight babies near the sites but not farther from them.

Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental group, referred to the study in calling on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who wants to expand hydraulic fracturing in the state, to reverse course.

“This study adds to existing scientific literature that tells us the serious health consequences linked to fracking,” the group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf [is] encouraging news drilling and expanding fossil fuel operations. We call on him to heed the science.”

When Greenstone and his co-authors — Janet Currie, a Princeton University economics professor, and Katherine Meckel, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles — embarked on the research, he said, the aim wasn’t to condemn fracking, which is a relatively new method of drilling vertically underground, then switching to a horizontal direction to reach gas trapped in shale rock formations.

The practice has come under scrutiny because of the potentially toxic chemicals used to crack the shale and the amount of water used to force out natural gas. State health officials and residents near fracking operations have complained that wastewater from fracking taints local drinking water. Companies in some cases have been forced to provide bottled drinking water for residents who relied on underground wells. A number of states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have banned fracking.

A U.S. Geological Survey study in 2014 said pumping wastewater into deeply buried storage wells was probably why Oklahoma was experiencing more small earthquakes than California. The sites are also known to leak methane, a gas that’s up to 100 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming in the atmosphere.

But those drawbacks are offset by the benefits of natural gas, Greenstone said. Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas “has led to a sharp increase in U.S. energy production and generated enormous benefits, including abruptly lower energy prices, stronger energy security and even lower air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by displacing coal in electricity generation.”

The authors hope that policymakers will use the study’s finding as a talking point in a robust debate over fracking. They chose to study Pennsylvania because they got access to birth record data that identified “the exact locations of the mothers and the wells,” Greenstone said. “This was like a great success of big data.”

Most drilling operations sit in remote areas where they have little chance of harming pregnant women.

But some sites in Pennsylvania are near Pittsburgh, and others in Texas are inside heavily populated Fort Worth.

“Different communities are going to feel differently about this,” Greenstone said. “If you’re in Fort Worth, where fracturing is occurring in a dense area, you’re probably going to feel differently about it than if you’re in rural North Dakota.”

 

Harvey pounded the nation’s chemical epicenter. What’s in the foul-smelling floodwater left behind?

http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-houston-chemical-plant-20170831-story.html

Image result for Harvey pounded the nation's chemical epicenter. What's in the foul-smelling floodwater left behind?

The pounding rains of Hurricane Harvey washed over the conduits, cooling towers, ethylene crackers and other esoteric equipment of the nation’s largest complex of chemical plants and petroleum refineries, leaving behind small lakes of brown, foul-smelling water whose contents are a mystery.

Broken tanks, factory fires and ruptured pipes are thought to have released a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the waters. Explosions that released thick black smoke were reported at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant, where floods knocked out the electricity, leaving the facility outside Houston without refrigeration needed to protect volatile chemicals.

Meanwhile, emissions into the air have soared as the petrochemical industry shut down and then started up chemical operations, a cycle that causes an uptick in releases.

The potential health problems were magnified by overflowing sewers, inoperative treatment plants and the residues of animal waste, including carcasses.

Nobody is sure how much long-term health impact, if any, will result from the tidal wave of toxins and bacteria that swept through the nation’s fourth largest city.

Exhaustive investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Engineering after Hurricane Katrina, in which floodwaters languished in New Orleans for about six weeks, showed that toxic concentrations and the resulting exposures were too low to cause significant long-term health problems.

That festering flood caused a stench for weeks that left soldiers gagging for air as they flew helicopters 2,000 feet over the city. The Army Corps of Engineers had to pump the water out of New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level.

A report by the National Academy of Engineering in March 2006 said the floodwaters contained elevated levels of contaminants. The inorganic compounds were below drinking-water standards, while arsenic levels, attributed in part to lawn fertilizer, were above those standards.

The EPA took 1,800 samples of residue and soil from across the New Orleans area after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and found that generally “the sediments left behind by the flooding from the hurricanes are not expected to cause adverse health impacts to individuals returning to New Orleans.”

The situation is far different in Houston, where the floodwaters are receding much faster.

But because Houston is far more industrialized, Harvey could have a much larger potential for leaving a toxic trail.

Without question, air emissions rose significantly during and after the storm, said Elena Craft, a toxicologist and senior scientist at the Texas branch of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The industry shutdown and startup cycle released 2 million pounds of pollutants, equal to 40% of all the emissions from 2016, Craft said, based on reports the industry made to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“In a few days, we have had months of exposure,” Craft said.

Marathon Oil, for example, reported to the state that heavy rain had pounded the roof of a storage tank so hard that it tilted, exposing gasoline to the air.

The emissions reports also included such carcinogens and suspected carcinogens as benzene and butadiene.

Craft said that sewage treatment plants in Beaumont went off line. A pipe carrying anhydrous hydrogen chloride was compromised in La Porte. Harris County’s 26 federal Superfund toxic waste sites may have been affected, including one that contains dioxins from a former paper mill along the San Jacinto River.

The fire at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby released organic hydrogen peroxide, which officials said is an irritant but not toxic.

Tommy Newsom, who lives about 7 miles from the plant, said he felt fine but wondered what other chemicals might be involved. “Who knows how much of what they’re telling us is true?” he said.

“I think the wind’s in my favor,” said Newsom, a 60-year-old port worker, pointing to Texas state and U.S. flags at the entrance to his housing development.

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said the situation in Houston is a perfect breeding ground for hepatitis and tetanus.

“The flood is so large and slow-moving and the area is packed with dirty industries that are poorly regulated. Because the oil and gas industries down here are not as safe, we are concerned those toxins and chemicals are leaking,” she said.

Texas regulators urged caution. “Floodwaters may contain many hazards, including infectious organisms, intestinal bacteria, and other disease agents,” the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a statement. “Precautions should be taken by anyone involved in cleanup activities or any others who may be exposed to floodwaters.”

The American Chemistry Council said its members are in constant communication with state and federal regulators about the status of their operations.

“Hurricane Harvey has presented extreme and unique challenges for the city of Houston and the surrounding areas in southeast Texas and Louisiana, warranting an unprecedented response effort, including that by local industry,” the trade group said in a statement.