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WISER: Frack attack — reports question science used by fracking critics

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It’s been a rough couple of weeks for environmental groups and activists opposed to natural gas drilling.

The latest blow came last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would take no “additional action” to address contaminants in the private drinking water wells of residents in Dimock, Pa. Dimock is the town infamous for a scene in “Gasland,” an anti-drilling documentary made by filmmaker Josh Fox, in which a homeowner ignites his tap water.

The EPA conducted the study in Dimock because of its proximity to the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that drillers inject with a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals (more than 99.5 percent of the mixture consists of water and sand) to release natural gas — a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In a sampling of 64 homes, the EPA only found levels of hazardous substances posing health concerns in the well water at five homes. The substances, namely arsenic, barium, and manganese, are all naturally occurring.

Fracking opponents have also had to contend with a recent report by the Associated Press questioning the science behind their indictment of the practice:

One of the clearest examples of a misleading claim comes from north Texas, where gas drilling began in the Barnett Shale about 10 years ago.

Opponents of fracking say breast cancer rates have spiked exactly where intensive drilling is taking place — and nowhere else in the state. The claim is used in a letter that was sent to New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo by environmental groups and by Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of “Gasland,” a film that criticizes the industry. Fox, who lives in Brooklyn, has a new short film called “The Sky is Pink.”

But researchers haven’t seen a spike in breast cancer rates in the area, said David Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

David Risser, an epidemiologist with the Texas Cancer Registry, said in an email that researchers checked state health data and found no evidence of an increase in the counties where the spike supposedly occurred.

And Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a major cancer advocacy group based in Dallas, said it sees no evidence of a spike, either.

“We don’t,” said Chandini Portteus, Komen’s vice president of research, adding that they sympathize with people’s fears and concerns, but “what we do know is a little bit, and what we don’t know is a lot” about breast cancer and the environment.

Yet Fox tells viewers in an ominous voice that “In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell — except in one place — in the Barnett Shale.”

Lee called the claims of an increase “a classic case of the ecological fallacy” because they falsely suggest that breast cancer is linked to just one factor. In fact, diet, lifestyle and access to health care also play key roles.

The fact that scientific evidence has contradicted claims made by critics of fracking is nothing new. Back in 2010, former Mayor Calvin Tillman of Dish, Texas (near the Barnett Shale) gained national prominence for giving talks in several states about the dangers of fracking and threatening to leave his town if the air quality didn’t improve. Yet a study by the Texas Department of State Health Services found that the levels of volatile compounds in the blood and urine of Dish residents could not be directly attributed to natural gas drilling.

The study, which analyzed 28 blood and urine samples, noted that all four residents with higher levels of benzene in their blood were cigarette smokers. And out of 27 samples of tap water from homes, only one home had a contaminant exceeding regulatory limits — a by-product from mixing the disinfectant chlorine with drinking water.

Fox responded to the AP article by Kevin Begos in a blog post:

THE SKY IS PINK calls attention to several health studies that point to serious questions and risks in gas drilling areas and supports those who are calling for further study. Further study into public health risks is a good thing. It’s not an exaggeration and it’s not bad science. Kevin Begos also refused to deal with the main thrust of THE SKY IS PINK which is to point to the enormous failure of the gas industry to stop their wells from leaking into aquifers. He also misses the point entirely, that the film calls for FURTHER STUDY on the issue. Which is to say MORE SCIENCE.

Robert Horner, an environmental policy analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, said in an interview that he agrees with the notion that more research needs to be done about fracking’s effects on groundwater contaminants. It’s difficult to “disentangle” whether contaminants such as methane are naturally occurring, already in the groundwater or present because of recent drilling, he said.

That doesn’t mean natural gas can’t be extracted safely, however, with the proper precautions. Horner said fracking fluids are used to release gas about 5,000 feet below the surface at sites such as the Marcellus Shale, while groundwater rests at about a few hundred feet below the surface. Companies continue to develop technologies in order to better manage, store and reuse contaminated water that rises back to the surface in wells, he said.

“It seems that this can probably be handled and drilling can improve,” he said. “It’s already fairly good, but I think it can get even better.”

It’s also worth noting that environmental groups such as the Sierra Club weren’t always so antagonistic toward natural gas drilling. Before their “Beyond Natural Gas” campaign, the club accepted $26 million in donations from officials with the natural gas company Chesapeake Energy between 2007 and 2010 to finance their “Beyond Coal” campaign against coal-fired power plants, as reported by The New York Times earlier this year.

Former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope hailed natural gas at the time as a cleaner “bridge fuel” to a future dominated by renewable energy — the combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and almost 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. But now the club sings a different tune, perhaps because natural gas has become such an economical fuel compared to renewables.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, production of natural gas increased by 19 percent between 2007 and 2011, while average residential prices for the fuel declined by 21 percent during that same span.

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