Shale Gas Extraction Conference: Public Health Discussion Limps Along
Uni Blake provides a summary of what happened (and didn’t happen) at a recent conference on the health effects of shale gas development. She concludes that after 5 years of closely examining the negatives impacts of gas development, there has been NO significant and NO widespread health effects reported or recorded.
“If you want to understand what a science is, you should look in the first instance not at its theories or findings, and certainly not at what its apologists say about it; you would look at what the practitioners of it do”. —Clifford Geertz (1973)
Over the past couple of years the discussion on the potential health effects of shale development has been dominated by talk about negative health effects. The 3rd Annual Conference on the Health Effects of Shale Extraction, which was held in Pittsburgh on November 8th, 2012 was no different. We know people’s health is improving in gas development zones and we also know there are health benefits to the decreasing levels of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) 2012 June Report). As with any risk/benefit discussion, it is important to present both sides; sadly, the conference was another opportunity lost. However, I have to credit the organizers for a line-up which included some thought provoking presentations. The technical information was better this year than that of the two previous conferences.
The State of the Feds
First on the agenda was Dr. Glenn Paulson, who serves as the science advisor to the U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. Dr. Paulson outlined an extensive list of federal agencies and inter-agency coalitions (representing a significant amount of federal resources) involved in assisting with the discussion and development of shale gas studies. However, since the information being studied is basically the same, one can assume the findings will be similar to those found by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board in 2011 and the 2012 GAO report. Both reports recommended a need for best practices, which industry has already acted on to ensure health is protected.
Next up was Brook Lenker, current Director of FracTracker. His presentation did not discuss shale health effects. The closest connection to the health discussion was a map populated with reported gas industry violations. This would have been a good opportunity to showcase the lack of widespread health effects associated with the development, extraction and production of gas wells. However, the map misrepresented the violations (it did not differentiate between the significance of the violations). If FracTracker had utilized the strategy the University of Buffalo Report used, which broke down violations into different levels of consequences, attendees would have seen a much smaller footprint.
Utilizing a Systematic Approach to Protecting Health
The next session focused on seismicity, wastewater and water quality issues. Dr. Jeffery Dick from Youngstown State University addressed seismicity; his research showed the importance of pre-drilling geological studies before the installation of injection wells as a strategy to minimize seismic issues. Dr. Leonard Casson of University of Pittsburgh discussed bromide levels in the Allegheny River watershed and the related drinking water quality issues at the Pittsburgh water intake and treatment plant. However, we know that a simple waste load allocation calculation can effectively manage the loading of bromides in the watershed, making this issue mute.
On the issue of NORMs, Dr. Radisav Vidic, an engineer from the University of Pittsburgh, reported that NORM (specifically radium 226) is not ending up in the waterways via wastewater treatment plant effluents as reported by Ian Urbina’s article. Chemistry shows Radium 226 precipitates out of wastewater streams with treatment, and regulatory controls can be utilized to manage the disposal of the precipitates; exposure source eliminated, therefore no health effect.
New EPA Air Emission Standards and Other Solutions Not Discussed
The next session focused on air and workers exposure. Dr. John Adgate from the Colorado School of Public Health summarized the Health Impact Assessment (HIA) that he and others conducted. The HIA concluded that there was a potential of negative health effects related to benzene emissions. This is also a mute discussion because of the use of appropriate setbacks and the new federal air pollution standards.
Dr. David Goldsmith from George Washington University presented on the topic of worker exposure. His presentation focused on the potential health impacts associated with silica inhalation by gasfield workers. This work was originally investigated by Capt. Eric Esswein. Not presented was Capt. Esswein’s long list of controls and management solutions to prevent silica exposure, which again would remove the exposure pathways of concerns. If exposure is prevented then the potential of silicosis is eliminated. Besides Esswein’s long list, a recent search of US Patent & Trademark Office reveals another patent in the works to help eliminate worker exposure to silica.
James Sewell, Shell’s Appalachia Environmental and Regulatory Team Lead, was the only industry representative among the presenters. He discussed how Shell developed the Shell Onshore Tight Sand /Shale Oil and Gas Operating Principles document to focus on mitigating potential soil, air, surface water, wildlife and vegetation impacts. Some of Shell’s principals include voluntarily lowering NOx emissions, using green completions, the use of infrared cameras to help in the capture of fugitive emissions, a NORM reduction plan, utilization of solar panels and a voluntary GHG emission inventories program. It was noted by some attendees that Shell Operating Principles go above and beyond regulatory requirements. The industry across the board is taking similar initiatives to be proactive by avoiding, eliminating and minimizing impacts.
Widespread Health Implications Lacking
The next session focused on public health impacts. It featured Dr. Robert Oswald, Dr. Michelle Bamberger and Elaine Hill (a doctoral student from Cornell). Oswald and Bamberger claimed that their research was not intended to show causal relationships, nor was it intended to show what happened. This made it difficult to comprehend the intent of the paper. Hill then presented her paper, which also has previously been critiqued here. Under normal circumstances, the two studies presented in this session would have fallen outside the fringe of credible research studies. However, because of the popularity of the subject matter, marginal research has gained unwarranted traction and inadvertently serves to misinform.
How the Community Responds
The next session was titled Community Responses. Dr. Jill Kreisky shared the results of a survey conducted to understand the difference in Allegheny County and Washington County resident’s perceptions of the risks and benefits of natural gas development. The results showed that most of the people felt that true risks and benefits lay somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Dave Brown, a public health toxicologist and advisor to the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, presented results of water and air samples collected in Southwest PA. Of the chemicals detected, he focused on adamantane because adamantane does not have toxicity data available. However, according to the Pavilion Study,
“There is at least a 2000 fold difference in the level of adamantanes found in the Pavilion-area wells versus the lower pharmacologic dose of the surrogate adamantane (1-aminoadamantane) used for this evaluation. Based on the difference in the levels found in the well water versus the daily intakes used for therapeutic purposes, health effects associated with drinking the “adamantanes” in the Pavilion area are not likely to be associated with adverse health effects.”
Without information on pre-existing water conditions or an exhaustive look at other potential sources (i.e. presence of superfund or brownfield sites), it is impossible to determine the exact source of the contaminants in the water and warrant “shutting down the gas industry” as Brown called for.
There were NO significant findings presented at the conference. Most disappointing was the inclusion of anecdotal studies and information. Its presence at a professional conference only serves to perpetuate an anecdotal led discourse that has yet to yield significant results. While most would argue that a lack of data leads to anecdotes, I would counter and say that a lack of data could simply mean that data is non-existent. Not because of a lack of studies, but possibly because of a lack of reason for the data to exist. After 5 years of closely examining the negatives impacts of gas development, there has been NO significant and NO widespread health effects reported or recorded. Maybe it is time for the researchers to start focusing on positive health effects and figure out how to maximize them.