Smelling gas one morning, a southern Pennsylvania farmer almost passed out when he went outside to check on his bellowing cows.
One of the animals did keel over, kicking its feet in spasms. A couple of days later, a calf was fighting for its life, the farmer said. It died.
Something awful is happening over the Marcellus Shale, the vast geological formation in eastern North America where energy companies are looking for natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process for extracting gas by injecting high volumes of water and chemicals into deep wells, has sparked complaints about ruined landscapes and fouled groundwater. Increasingly there is evidence, mostly anecdotal, that animals are suffering.
A new study by veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, chronicles case studies of dozens of farmers and pet owners in six states over the Marcellus Shale.
Their findings, published in “New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy,” are a harrowing account of sudden deaths of cattle, as well as reproductive and neurological problems in horses, cats, dogs and other animals.
The Pennsylvania farmers I spoke with have lost cows, calves, a horse, a couple dozen chickens. Many of the animals succumb in the same way: seizure-like symptoms, gasping for breath and a quick wasting away. A Rottweiler and a Dalmatian also fell ill and died.
These farmers are getting out of the beef business, in part over concern that their animals will become delivery systems for contaminants.
An organic farmer from southeast Ohio told me he has abandoned his cash crop, ginseng, for now, concerned that contaminants would enter his product. He began noticing changes around his 20-acre property in 2007, when a fracking operation began dumping wastewater nearby. He lost quite a few deer that were drawn to the brine and antifreeze in the fluid.
Energy representatives dismiss the veterinarians’ study. They say that health indicators have actually improved in areas with shale development.
“The paper is little more than a collection of personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified,” says Steve Everley, a spokesman for industry group Energy in Depth. “The paper is full of bold assertions about oil and gas development, but empty of any facts or scientific evidence to support those opinions.”
Establishing a causal link between fracking and specific health threats is tricky. Energy companies are not required to disclose the composition of fracking fluids for proprietary reasons, so they don’t.
Like a lot of people who live near fracking operations, many of the farmers I interviewed are in litigation with an energy company and wish to remain anonymous.
“We don’t know what the chemicals are in a lot of these cases,” says Bamberger. “It gets very frustrating when you start saying: What was in the tissue? What killed these animals exactly?”
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 head of cattle after they drank wastewater from a fracking site in Tioga County. The fear was that a radioactive contaminant in the water, strontium, would end up in beef.
In December 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency linked water pollution to fracking for the first time, after examining contaminated water in central Wyoming.
Note to New York
Last month the federal agency announced it would test water in dozens of homes around Dimock, Pennsylvania, a hotbed of fracking activity. It also told New York it would need to improve safeguards for drinking water before tapping into the Marcellus Shale.
New York placed a moratorium on fracking in 2010 so it could revise the rules governing the practice. Bamberger and Oswald are among those who contributed to the tens of thousands of public comments on the draft regulations, which were closed last month.
Bamberger submitted the published study; Oswald contributed 15 pages of his own to denounce the inadequacy of the proposed rules.
“There are so many flaws in the document,” he says. “It is unlikely to be able to protect us from the industrialization of our landscape and hydraulic fracturing.”
Now, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation will review comments and revise regulations as necessary. It seems inevitable that the state will be fracking eventually, so the question is whether the industry can proceed safely -- for humans and animals.
New Yorkers should listen to the stories of farmers, hunters and vets before making the same fracking mistakes that are being made elsewhere.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)