Benzene Contamination Caused by Fracking. Or Something Else?

In Erie, Colorado, a local mom is understandably alarmed by the level of benzene — a known human carcinogen — in her 6-year-old son’s blood. There is plenty of drilling and fracking happening around Erie, including a wellpad 1,300′ to the west of the Erie elementary school that was built in 2012 and now hosts at least 8 producing wells. Prevailing winds in Erie typically blow from the west, putting the elementary school and the neighboring middle school directly downwind from this large drilling site, making the drilling operations an obvious suspect for the cause of this contamination. Slam dunk, right? 

Map showing locations of Erie, Colorado elementary and middle schools, and nearby features of interest noted in the text.

But the situation may not be that simple, as illustrated in the map above. The schools have a much closer neighbor — a gasoline station that’s right across the street, 250′ north of the elementary school, that has been there since at least 1993. When I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, the problem of fuel oozing out of leaking underground storage tanks (yes, we called them LUSTs) at homes, gas stations, on farms, and other sites around the country was just beginning to get nationwide attention and prompted a suite of new rules from the EPA. Gas stations around the country were required to replace their old tanks. Many sites had plumes of gasoline floating on the local water table, sometimes migrating off the gas station property and into surrounding neighborhoods, sending fumes into basements and chemicals into water-supply wells. Gasoline contains benzene. Could kids at these schools be exposed to old gasoline contamination from this nearby filling station? Or to gasoline vapors being released today, as customers fill up their vehicles?
 

Looking south-southwest at gasoline filling station across the street from Erie Elementary School (just beyond the treeline).

There’s also a lumber mill 900′ south of the elementary school property line, and it too has been there since at least 1993. The mill probably operates diesel-powered equipment, and may even have its own diesel fuel storage tank onsite. Diesel fuel and fumes, and exhaust from diesel engines, all contain benzene. This site is not upwind from the school, so I would consider it a less-likely source of exposure for the kids there.
 
And I don’t know where this boy lives; maybe he’s grown up with a filling station or some other benzene-spewing industrial site nearby.  He may not even go to this school.  
 
None of this speculation — and it is pure speculation on our part — is intended to deflect attention from the increasingly well-documented health impacts that result from living near modern drilling and fracking operations. Everybody’s situation is different, and we just want to be sure we’re pointing our fingers at the right culprit so that A) we’ll be taken seriously, and B) the problem will be fixed. Sometimes that culprit may be oil and gas drilling. At other times it may be something that we’re overlooking.  
Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

SkyTruth data supports Maryland’s ban on fracking

In April 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill reinstating a fracking ban in the state. The Maryland General Assembly imposed a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in 2013, and — following similar bans in Vermont in 2012 and New York in 2015 — the 2017 bill makes Maryland the third state in the country to ban fracking. 

SkyTruth’s crowd-assisted FrackFinder work mapping oil and gas well pads played an important role in this environmental and public health victory. Lawmakers evaluated recent research led by Dr. Brian Schwartz at Johns Hopkins that found higher premature birth rates for mothers in Pennsylvania that live near fracking sites. In a related study, Johns Hopkins researcher Sara Rasmussen found that Pennsylvania residents with asthma living near fracking sites are up to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks.

The research conducted by Johns Hopkins relied on oil and gas infrastructure data produced by SkyTruth. That means our work was among the things that Maryland legislators considered when they chose to extend the state’s ban on fracking. It’s incredibly exciting to see our work play such a direct role in policy-making, and it highlights the importance of continuing to update our oil and gas footprint data sets and sharing them for free with researchers and the public. We’re continuing to map the footprint of oil and gas development in Appalachia, so keep checking in for updates.  Way to go Maryland!

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Half of West Virginians Live Within a Mile of an Active Well

According to a new study by Environmental Health Perspectives, 17.6 million Americans live within one mile of an active oil or gas well. West Virginia topped the list. Half of the state’s population resides within a mile of an active well.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos (above & below) from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Aerial survey photos from the 2013 National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) show how drilling and fracking have altered the West Virginia landscape.

Studies have found links between public health outcomes and active oil and gas production.

Oil and gas development:

  • degrades the quality of air and water,
  • contaminates the soil,
  • increases exposure to noise and light pollution.

People who live within a mile of an active well have higher rates of health problems including:

  • heart-related illness,
  • neurological problems,
  • cancer,
  • asthma.

Living near an active well has also been associated with adverse health outcomes in babies including:

  • pre-term birth,
  • lower birth weight,
  • neural tube defects,
  • congenital heart defects.

In Everyone’s Backyard: Assessing Proximity of Fracking to Communities At-Risk in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale

SkyTruth recently partnered with Downstream Strategies and San Francisco University on a related report, focused on West Virginia. The report concluded that Marcellus Shale gas production has become more common near places essential for everyday life in West Virginia, increasing the potential for human exposure to toxic chemicals.

“This report shines a light on the impacts of fracking on the health and well-being of West Virginians. It is a perfect example of why I founded SkyTruth,” said John Amos. “If people are aware of how these decisions impact their lives, they will be able to be part of the solution.”

Many Homes Are Too Close to Well Pads

According to the report, more than 7,000 homes were located less than one-half mile from well pads in 2014. While the Horizontal Well Control Act established a setback distance of 625 feet between the center of well pads and homes, many homes are located closer than this distance to well pads.

Well Pads Have Encroached on Schools

As fracking progressed in West Virginia, well pads have also encroached on schools. By 2014, seven schools had at least one well pad within one-half mile, and 36 schools had at least one well located within one mile.

More Well Pads Have Been Built Near Public Lands, Including Water Protection Areas and Healthcare Facilities

Well pads must be more than 1,000 feet from public drinking water intakes; however, there are no restrictions on the construction of well pads within drinking water protection areas upstream from intakes. In 2014, hundreds of well pads and impoundments were in these protection areas. Since 2007, more and more well pads and impoundments have been built in or near public lands and health care facilities.

A systematic, screening-level evaluation of the toxicity of chemicals self-reported by operators in West Virginia revealed several hazardous substances had been used to frack wells near schools and immediately upstream from surface public drinking water intakes.

New Setback Distances Needed

Unlike other states, West Virginia State Code does not require setbacks between Marcellus Shale development and several types of sensitive areas assessed in this report. Setback distances for schools, healthcare facilities, and public lands—and restrictions in zones of critical concern and zones of peripheral concern above drinking water intakes—would help protect vulnerable populations and recreational opportunities as fracking development continues.

“Now that this analysis is completed, it’s a good time for the Legislature to consider new setback distances from homes, schools, and other sensitive areas,” said Evan Hansen, President of Downstream Strategies.

This report was made possible by a Switzer Network Innovation Grant.

Global Flaring Map Reset

The wasteful practice of flaring off natural gas from oil and gas fields is again making news, coinciding with a new release of SkyTruth’s Global Flaring Map that visualizes gas flaring activity around the globe. This map relies on the Nightfire data provided by NOAA’s Earth Observation Group, which has written extensively about their work detecting and characterizing sub-pixel hot sources using multispectral data collected globally, each night, by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the Suomi-NPP satellite. Read about the algorithm that creates Nightfire data here and methods for estimating flared gas volumes here.

SkyTruth’s enhanced map has these added features:

  • NOAA has published two additional years of flaring data, allowing our map to extend back to March 2012.
  • A location search box lets you go directly to a city, state, country, landmark, etc.
  • Date range selection helps you limit the visualization to the time-frame of interest.
  • You can identify your rectangular Area of Interest and download flaring data within that AOI (works best in Chrome browsers).
  • We’ve caught up with NOAA’s daily download after adjusting to recent changes in their web security.


About our Global Flaring Map

Please read about some of the uses for this map and how SkyTruth processes NOAA’s data in this original post describing our map. If you don’t see a flaring detection you expected to see, consider the caveats:  some flares don’t burn hot enough to be included in our dataset, they may not have been burning when the satellite passed overhead, the flare may not be frequent enough to make it past the 3 detection threshold, heavy clouds may have obscured the flare from the sensor, etc.

If you find this map useful, drop us an email at info@skytruth.org to let us know.

Why Flaring is In the News Again

In November 2016 the Interior Department announced a new Methane and Waste Prevention Rule to reduce wasteful flaring and leaks of natural gas from oil and gas operations on public and Indian lands. Although Congress tried repealing the rule after the 2016 elections, that effort failed to advance out of the Senate after a May 2017 vote.

Despite the Senate’s action to keep the methane rule, the Environmental Protection Agency just announced (as of 6/15/2017) they would suspend implementation of the rule for 90 days — an action leading environmental groups claim is unlawful.

West Virginia FrackFinder Phase 1 Results

During Phase 1 of our FrackFinder WV project, we focused on identifying and delineating wellpads (drilling sites) and drilling-related fluid impoundments across West Virginia that have been built to accommodate the recent boom in drilling and fracking to produce natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shales.  This data has been provided to our partners, researchers at Downstream Strategies and the University of California – Berkeley, who are studying the human health impacts of living near modern drilling and fracking operations.

This slider shows an area near Wilsontown, WV before and after drilling took place (the wellpad is highlighted in red, and an impoundment is shown in blue):

We thought we’d assess the direct environmental impact by measuring the change in the landscape resulting from all this construction activity.  Here’s the breakdown of how much land was converted to industrial use between 2007 and 2014 as a result of fracking, categorized by the type of land cover that existed in the area before the wellpads and impoundments were built. The land cover data is from the National Land Cover Database, which is derived from Landsat imagery.

Land Area Converted to Wellpads and Impoundments, 2007-2014

Detected barren land is likely drilling predating 2006. Lightly developed is a mixture of development, roadways, and residential green space.

It appears that the NLCD is registering this land conversion, as seen in the three images below which show the same area displayed in the slider. A wellpad first appeared on this site in 2011, which was when the NLCD was last updated using moderate-resolution satellite imagery, and it is identifying the drilling site as “barren” land. It is worth noting that of the 1,081 acres of forest cleared for drilling infrastructure, 27.8 were cleared in the Monongahela National Forest.

2006 National Land Cover Data, near Wilsontown, WV.

The 2011 update of the National Land Cover Dataset, detected a fracking wellpad in the center of this image and registered it as Barren Land. See the next image when the outline of the wellpad is displayed.

The 2011 National Land Cover Data, with results from our West Virginia FrackFinder project displayed.

We find that 1,756 acres of land in West Virginia was converted to wellpads (averaging 2.3 acres in size) and impoundments (averaging 0.8 acres in size) from 2007 to 2014. That is an area 1/4 the size of  Morgantown, WV and is 7 times larger than the town of Shepherdstown (where SkyTruth is based). This is a very conservative starting point for measuring the true drilling “footprint” because it doesn’t capture the total land area disturbed to construct the pads and facilitate drilling:  tree clearing, site excavation and grading to accommodate heavy equipment and provide drainage control, access roads and utility / pipeline corridors, and associated facilities like compressor stations and storage facilities.  Later this year we may ask you to help us delineate this larger halo of direct land disturbance related to drilling, which we speculate could be 2-3 times larger than the footprint of the wellpads and impoundments alone.

In the meantime we are gearing up for the launch of Phase 2 of FrackFinder WV. During this stage of the project, citizen volunteers (that’s you!) will assist SkyTruth in creating a dataset of homes which lie within 1/2 mile of the wellpads we identified in Phase 1, data that our partners think will be very useful for public health research.

So be sure to keep an eye out for project updates and calls for volunteers!  If you sign up on our Volunteer page, you’ll get an email from us when the next FrackFinder project is up and running.