West Virginia Drinking Water Disaster is a Cautionary Chemical Tale

annie sartorBy Annie Sartor, Policy and Campaigns Coordinator

When I heard that 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical used in coal processing had seeped from a ruptured storage tank into West Virginians’ drinking water supplies, I was heartbroken but not surprised. Contrary to what the coal, oil and gas industries will tell you, technologies like coal extraction and now, increasingly, fracking for natural gas, are toxic and harmful to our health – and “accidents” like this one are par for the course, especially given the incredibly lax and patchy regulations that govern these toxic industries.

Steven Cohen, the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, put it well in a recent column in The Huffington Post: “It is finally time to apply the precautionary principle to chemicals used in production. Drug companies must prove that new drugs are safe and effective. Why not apply this practice to the use of new [extraction] technologies? The alternative is more water crises like the one in West Virginia, along with similar air and water crises. Do we really want to wait until millions of people are poisoned and the environmental contamination lasts for months instead of days?”

The answer, of course, is NO: we must take action now to stop toxic extractive industries like fracking from contributing further to the breast cancer epidemic. Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, the practice of shooting millions of gallons of water, mixed with tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals, which include known human carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, deep under the earth’s surface at extreme pressure in order to break up rock formations and release oil or natural gas for energy. We opposed fracking because it exposes people to known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors – just another example of the way the health of our bodies is intimately connected to the health of the earth, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. More information about fracking and its impact on our health is available here.

Don't Frack With Our Health LogoThe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with protecting the nation’s air, water and land from contamination – and this includes fracking by-products and waste. This task in critically important, if we are to avoid hazardous chemicals finding their way into our tap water – as many in West Virginia are currently experiencing, and can happen when fracking chemicals reach underground water supplies. Even so, prominent politicians and fossil fuel industry executives continue to undermine the value of the EPA and sometimes go so far as to propose eliminating this vital agency.

At BCAction, we know that the EPA plays a central role in protecting public health, and we often wish that despite the agency’s sometimes precarious reputation in Washington, it would go further and do a more thorough job of ensuring that fracking doesn’t threaten the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land we depend on to grow our food. We were interested to see that on December 24th, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General released a report which argues that the EPA was right to investigate water contamination at a drill site in Texas. Because the report was released on Christmas Eve, it went largely unnoticed and unreported in the news. But make no mistake – this report is important. The EPA has failed to fully investigate other reports of water contamination from fracking – we hope that this report focused on a situation in Texas will lead to more in-depth investigations of other drilling sites, such as the ones uncovered by the Associated Press (AP) earlier this week.

On January 6, the AP published a story about confirmed water contamination from fracking in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. While once again, the natural gas and oil industries routinely claim that water contamination from fracking is rare, and human health hazards minimal; evidence to the contrary continues to mount. Benzene, a known human carcinogen, is highlighted in the AP’s report as one of the chemicals turning up in drinking water contaminated by fracking operations.

The take-away lesson from West Virginia’s contaminated drinking water, and Pennsylviania’s, and Ohio’s, and Texas’, is that we must continue to pressure our legislators and regulatory bodies, especially the EPA, to do their jobs and protect all of us from dangerous chemicals that are regularly used in the process of fracking that can, and clearly do, make their way into our water, air and land.

Be sure to sign up for our action alerts as the fight against fracking and its threat to our health heats up across the country.



This entry was posted in BCA News.