Canaries in the Mine: Get Away from Louisiana Fracking

So, September 22, 2012, was a global day of protest against hydraulic fracturing also known as horizontal drilling or fracking. I took today as an invitation to finally my experience of living less than a mile from the hydraulic fracturing Rig# 2 that Devon Energy drilled last summer in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.

First some background for those unfamiliar: hydraulic fracturing is the natural gas and oil extraction method of pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, benzene, hydrochloric acid, radioactive tracer isotopes and other chemicals under incredible pressing into underground shale rock formations to fracture the rock and release the stored fossil fuels. Two major problems arise from the process. One is that released methane can contaminate nearby drinking water wells. The other is that fresh water is a limited resource and this process destroys trillions of gallons of fresh water. Moreover, there is no way to contain the millions of gallons of polluted water used for fracking once it is pumped into the ground. Half of the water stays under ground where it has contaminated aquifers and the the other half returns to the surface where safe disposal becomes problematic.

This process is so destructive that it was not economically viable until US Vice President Dick Cheney worked behind closed doors with oil and gas companies to write and pass the 2005 Energy Policy Act which exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act. This effectively meant that companies could pollute both the air and surface and ground water in any manner without any liability under any US law.

Since 2005, hydraulic fracturing expanded exponentially across the country. The complete lack of environmental safeguards and the emerging commodities bubble that began in 2008 had suddenly made it profitable. Everyday Americans had no idea companies were fracking nor that it had been exempted from federal environmental laws. Only now, with the growing publication of newspaper investigations and the 2010 documentary Gasland are we beginning to learn the public health and environmental costs of horizontal drilling. Only now–seven years behind industry–is the public poised to influence how and if drilling proceeds.

The NY Times reported that the millions of gallons of waste water come back to the surface containing high levels of radioactive elements and other carcinogens. Although water treatment plants cannot remove the radioactive particles from the water, it is often returned to rivers.

We’d been living pretty-happily in rural Louisiana an hour northeast of Baton Rouge for two years. Paradise lay a mile outside of our little town in a little shotgun house we were renting on fourteen acres surrounded by forest and pastures. At the end of last summer, we returned home from taking summer classes in Berkeley, to find a little sign like the one  at the top of this post, that read Rig# 2. It pointed down the narrow road leading to our house. Though it looked inconspicuous enough, the words were ominous.

Soon gigantic semi after gigantic semi were barreling down our narrow road with a Sheriff’s escort first to deliver the drilling equipment and then the fracking fluid. I learned we were on the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale and companies had begun drilling exploratory wells to determine if hydraulic fracturing would make large scale exploitation feasible.

Since January 2011, energy company representatives had been quietly getting every landowner in East & West Feliciana, St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes in Louisiana and Wilkinson County, Mississippi to lease their mineral rights for $75-$200 an acre. By the time the first wells were going in, everyone we talked to had already signed over their rights.

It took from June to October for Devon Energy to put the well in a mile from our shotgun house. Our landlord said that a company wanted to put a pipeline in across his 14 acres running along our shotgun house to get the gas from the rig where it was being drilled to a nearby regional pipeline. State law requires gas pipelines to be 500 feet from any house but the company was not going to consider our shotgun house a house since it wasn’t the main house on the property. Our landlord told them they could run it at the edge of his property or they could forget his property all together.

At the beginning of last November, we had the first quantifiable evidence the fracking was affecting us. My tropical fish were my canaries. Suddenly their bodies became bloated and their scales turned out perpendicular to their bodies. They became sorrowful pine cones with three or so dying a day. My big discus fish started panicking, they darted around the tank and jumped up only to hit the glass lid. It was as if they were trying to escape for their lives. I got the message.

I tested the fish tank water and the water coming from our well to find that our stable ph of 7 had suddenly dropped to below 6–the lower limit on my test kit. A low ph shouldn’t hurt these fish as they’re naturally accustomed to a low ph. Whatever else was in the water that caused such a sudden, dramatic drop in ph, was killing my fish, and they knew it. My wife and I drove to Baton Rouge and hauled back  filtered water to change out the fish tanks and stave off crisis. It worked, buying us time.

My wife developed a terrible, deep cough that persisted anytime we were home and disappeared away from home. With her asthma, she is terribly sensitive to air quality. Now I can’t say we weren’t somewhat prepared for all of this to happen. Over the previous months, we had watched  over-sized tanker after tanker bring in the water, sand, benzene, surfactants, and other fracking fluids. While we thought things might get bad eventually, we had been hoping the fracking wouldn’t affect us so immediately. We asked around and found out the well had gone live on Oct. 30th. We were floored at how fast it affected our water, our fish, and our breathing.

I felt like I had an opportunity to stand up and fight for what was right. To work with the citizens of the Felicians to preserve the land and water and beauty of the area for both their and future generations’ enjoyment. My conscious tore at me. I had the opportunity to be an Abraham Lincoln, a Martin Luther King Jr., or an Erin Brockovich. I wanted to stand up to contest the abuse of power and destruction of the earth’s most precious resource.

My wife gave me one week. She said we could move to West Feliciana where there wasn’t any drilling yet, we could move back to Illinois, but come the next weekend we were moving.  My angst and stress built. I talked to people I knew to try to gain a sense of whether there would be popular support to protect the area’s beauty. There was not. Save a few passionate exceptions, people supported getting money for their mineral rights and largely welcomed the oil and gas industries with open arms.

So we moved. I let go of the hope of standing up for the beauty of the area and the rights of future generations. The movie Promised Land set to hit theaters in January 2013 paints an empowering story of a struggling town rallying to preserve their land and way of life in spite of the possible fortunes promised by the fracking companies. Even if that wasn’t me, I’m going to sleep a little easier knowing that it happened in the movie, it happened in my heart, and maybe it will happen more and more in the future.

I yielded to local self-determination, and mourned for the high long-term costs of the short-term benefits the area may reap. Mentally, we tried to push it all to the back of our consciousness and enjoy the rest of the year in Louisiana. But we were out. Immediately, we started working on plans to move back north.

We knew the fracking would consume that part of the state as it has so much of the country. Unfortunately,  it’s the direction a large portion of the nation and other countries have already gone or are going. As I flew back to Louisiana last April from a conference in Atlanta, I noticed the peppered landscape typical of hydraulic fracturing. It’s noticeable from an airplane, and it’s noticeable by satellite. The pot-marked landscape wrought by fracking is visible on Google Earth along with the accompanying gigantic unearthly man-made teal lakes of flo-back waste water.

Perhaps, the commodities bubble will pop and fracking will come to a dramatic halt. Maybe as a nation of clean water dependent beings, we will err on the side of future prosperity rather than cheap energy and continued climate change. Perhaps, the government will pass the FRAC Act to make energy companies liable for any pollution caused by the process of hydraulic fracturing. It would, at a minimum, put an end to easy profits and impunity. And perhaps, after a year of trying to find the words and the courage to write what I know, I can be a part of the movement toward social, environmental, and inter-generational responsibility. And perhaps you can, too.

Also see: Solutions from the Gas Fields by Vanessa Lamers, recipient of the 2012 Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Research Prize Fellowship for her summer research proposal to study the impacts of shale gas development on water quality in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.