The Real Cost of Fracking

Environmental hazards from fracking may extend well beyond drilling sites.


| Fall 2014



Fracking globe

"The industry is largely self-regulated, and their air emissions are entirely self-reported. No one monitors what is emitted."

Illustration by Fotolia/John Takai

Pramilla Malick was reading in bed last summer when suddenly she had to struggle to breathe. Gasping, she went outside and then back inside, getting no relief from the country air around her home in Minisink, New York. Her symptoms began at a time when her children and some of their Minisink neighbors were also experiencing new ailments, such as nausea, nosebleeds, rashes, sore throats, asthma and dizziness. Their symptoms would erupt during or after an “odor event,” a period of malodorous emissions at the new Millennium Pipeline gas compressor station nearby that began functioning in June of 2013. Malick’s asthmatic symptoms, which she never had before, surface only on weekends in Minisink, she says; they live in New York City, 95 miles away, on weekdays.

The community’s ailments mirror those of the Parr family, living near Aruba Petroleum’s hydraulic fracturing (gas fracking) sites in Wise County, Texas. In April the family was awarded $2.95 million in a lawsuit alleging that environmental contamination from drilling sickened them and killed their pets and livestock, compelling them to leave their home. The maladies of Minisink residents suggest that environmental hazards from fracking may extend well beyond drilling sites.

Malick is a member of Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety (MREPS), a group of 10 Minisink residents legally representing the community who fought construction of the compressor and our now pressing for monitoring. They presented their case against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Millennium Pipeline Company, LLC, at a District of Columbia Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals hearing in May.


More from Minisink


In addition to explosivity issues, the group cites concern that emission levels acceptable in Millennium’s compressor station application to FERC bump up against the findings of Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant, whom Malick engaged in their efforts. Subra provides communities in the United States and beyond with technical evaluations of environmental issues and strategies for addressing them. She does contractual consulting for the Environmental Protection Agency and was a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient. She helped the Parrs in Texas identify the toxins that were sickening them and found similar toxins in compressor emissions.

Malick and some of her Minisink neighbors attended Subra’s presentation in December, where Subra explained the compressor’s environmental effects. She found that not only do compressor stations produce several tons of carcinogenic volatile organic compounds annually, they also emit chemicals from “fracked gas,” drawn from deep in the earth with hydraulic fracturing. Fracked gas chemicals differ from those of gas from conventional drilling.

“The Marcellus shale has large quantities of radioactive components such as Radium 226 and 228,” Subra explained in her PowerPoint presentation. “The radioactive components contaminate the natural gas stream and build up in the units of compressor facilities.  Radium 226 is a bone seeker and causes bone and lung cancer.”

“This is not your grandfather’s gas,” says Malick. “We’re extremely concerned with radioactive particles. There is no explanation by industry or regulators as to how radon gas would or could be removed from the methane. In the absence of an explanation we must conclude that it will be emitted along with methane. The decay particles of radium include dangerous particles such as polonium, which decays into radioactive lead, and then permanently into just lead. So the concern is short-term exposure to highly radioactive particles, and then long-term exposure to and accumulation of lead particles.”