The controversial gas-drilling practice is tainting water. Your food might be next.
There’s a stunning moment in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland, where a man touches a match to his running faucet—to have it explode in a ball of fire. This is what hydraulic fracturing, a process of drilling for natural gas known as “fracking,” is doing to many drinking water supplies across the country. But the other side of fracking—what it might do to the food eaten by people living hundreds of miles from the nearest gas well—has received little attention.
Fracking well. Photo credit: RiverkeeperUnlike many in agriculture, cattle farmer Ken Jaffe has had a good decade. But lately he’s been nervous, worried fracking will destroy his business. Jaffe’s been good to his soil, and the land has been good to him. By rotating his herd of cattle to different pastures on his Catskills farm every day, he has restored the once-eroded land and built a successful business with his grass-fed and -finished beef. His Slope Farms sells meat to food coops, specialty meat markets, and high-end restaurants in New York City, about 160 miles to the southeast. “If you feed your micro-herd—the bacteria and fungi in the soil—then your big herd will do well, too,” he said when I visited him recently on a cool, sunny afternoon.
But a seam of black rock lies nearly a mile beneath the topsoil he has so scrupulously nurtured, and the deposit contains enormous quantities of natural gas. Profit-hungry energy companies—and the politicians that their campaign donations support—are determined to exploit that resource, even though it could destroy the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers like Jaffe who have sprung up in New York City’s vibrant, alternative food shed.
Energy companies liberate the gas, which is trapped in tiny bubble-like pockets in the rock, by forcefully injecting chemicals diluted with millions of gallons of water into the rock. This fracking ruptures the earth, creating fissures through which the gas passes—along with a witch’s brew of carcinogens, acutely poisonous heavy metals, and radioactive elements.
“For sustainable agriculture, fracking is a disaster,” says Jaffe. The gas rush started in the South and West, but has spread to the East and now affects 34 states. Under much of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York lies a 400-million-year-old geographic formation called the Marcellus Shale. Although estimates vary, the shale may hold 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, enough to meet New York State’s needs for 50 years. To see what fracking can do to food production, Jaffe has only to look at what has happened to some of his colleagues in nearby Pennsylvania, where the first fracked well came into production in 2005, and where there are now there are now more than 1,500.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle belonging to Don and Carol Johnson, who farm about 175 miles southwest of Jaffe. The animals had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well that showed concentrations of chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of frightening consequences, from poisoned wells to sickened pets to debilitating illnesses.
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The Marcellus Shale itself contains ethane, propane, and butane, arsenic, cobalt, lead, chromium—toxins all. Uranium, radium, and radon make the shale so radioactive that companies sometimes drop Geiger counters into wells to determine whether they have reached the gas-rich deposits. But those compounds are almost benign compared to the fracking fluids that drillers inject into the wells. At least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, but the companies are not required by law to divulge the ingredients, which are considered trade secrets. According to a report prepared for the Ground Water Protection Council, a national association of state agencies charged with protecting the water supply, a typical recipe might include hydrochloric acid (which can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines), glutaraldehyde (normally used to sterilize medical equipment and linked to asthma, breathing difficulties, respiratory irritation, and skin rashes), N,N-dimethyl formamide (a solvent that can cause birth defects and cancer), ethylene glycol (a lethal toxin), and benzene (a potent carcinogen). Some of these chemicals stay in the ground. Others are vented into the air. Many enter the water table or leach into ponds, streams, and rivers.
For the most part, state and federal governments have turned a blind eye to the problems brought about by fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims that it has no jurisdiction to investigate matters related to food production, a contention disputed by Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who wrote a report urging the EPA to study all issues associated with fracking. A concerned farmer who prefers not to be identified forwarded me an email written to him by Jim Riviere, the director of the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, a group of animal science professors that tracks incidents of chemical contamination in livestock. Riviere wrote that his group receives up to 10 requests per day from veterinarians dealing with exposures to contaminants, including the byproducts of fracking. Nonetheless, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has slashed funding to his group. “We are told by the newly reorganized USDA that chemical contamination is not their priority,” Riviere wrote.
“The dangers of fracking to the food supply are not something that’s been investigated very much,” said Emily Wurgh of Food and Water Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. “We have been trying to get members of Congress to request studies into effects of fracking on agriculture, but we haven’t gotten much traction.”
Fracking is not a new technology. It was first put into commercial use in 1949 by Halliburton, and that company has made billions from employing the extraction method. But it really wasn’t until 2004 that fracking really took off, the year that the EPA declared that fracking “posed little or no threat” to drinking water. Weston Wilson, a scientist and 30-year veteran of the agency, who sought whistleblower protection, emphatically disagreed, saying that the agency’s official conclusions were “unsupportable” and that five of seven members of the review panel that made the decision had conflicts of interest. (Wilson has continued to work at the EPA, and continues to be publicly critical of fracking.)
A year later, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act with a “Halliburton loophole,” a clause inserted at the request of Dick Cheney, who had been Halliburton’s CEO before becoming vice president. The loophole specifically exempts fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the CLEAR Act, and from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it unleashed the largest and most extensive drilling program in history, according to Josh Fox, the creator of the film Gasland.
In 2010 New York State imposed a moratorium on gas drilling, but if that were to be lifted, fracking would deal a triple whammy to Ken Jaffe’s farm, and thousands more like it. (Compare a map of the Marcellus Shale with one of small organic farms.)
Back on his pasture, Jaffe gestured to a pond in a bowl-like valley surrounded by sloping pastures and hillsides of maples, white pines, and blossoming wild cherries and apple trees, that, along with wells on the property, provides water for his animals. Given the geography of the land, any chemical contamination seeping from the rock would go directly into Jaffe’s water supply, poisoning his cattle.
And it’s not just his herd that’s vulnerable; all the plant life on his property would also be in danger. According to Jaffe, ozone is more lethal to crops than all other airborne pollutants combined, and of all crops, few are more susceptible to it than clover, a nutrient-rich feed that is critical to his method of sustainable cattle raising. While ozone is normally associated with automobile exhaust, fracking generates so much of it that Sublette Country, Wyo., has ozone levels as high as Los Angeles. This, despite the fact that it has fewer than 9,000 residents spread out over an area the size of Connecticut. What it does have is gas wells.
Even if his cows and his land would somehow remain unaffected by nearby wells, Jaffe’s business would still likely suffer. Joe Holtz is manager of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Coop, which buys a cow a week from Jaffe (and upwards of $3 million products from other New York area farms). He says that his environmentally conscious organization would be forced to seek alternatives to New York meat and produce if fracking becomes commonplace. “If the air is fouled and the animals are drinking water that contains poisonous fracking chemicals, then products from those animals are going to have poisons,” he told me. Given the progress that small, local farms have made in the region, he says, the decision to stop dealing with long-term suppliers would be hard. But he adds, “We would have to stop buying from them. There is no doubt in my mind.”