ShaleTest Claims on Benzene and Fracking Still ‘Not Scientifically Appropriate’

This week, ShaleTest released a new study that claims shale development is polluting the air near playgrounds, but the same scientifically dubious techniques that plagued the group’s previous studies once again form the core of the report’s conclusions. The effort was funded by a grant from California-based clothing outfitter Patagonia, which opposes hydraulic fracturing, despite the fact that its stores are filled with items that are made from petroleum products.

Just as a bit of background, ShaleTest – which is “proudly affiliated” with the anti-fracking group Earthworks – is headed up by Calvin Tillman, a former mayor of DISH, Tex., and one of the big stars of Josh Fox’s Gasland films.  On several occasions, ShaleTest has teamed up with other well-known anti-fracking activists to produce “studies” just like the one released this week – and each one has been criticized for its lack of scientific integrity.

Tillman’s first “report” was actually contracted out to Wolf Eagle Environmental, the same group of consultants who famously helped a landowner in the second Gasland film create a “deceptive video” to make regulators think fracking polluted his water.  The Wolf Eagle team measured benzene over an incredibly short period of time and then compared those results to long-term thresholds.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) looked into the report’s claims and found the “highest potential 1-hour maximum benzene concentration is below the health effects level,” demonstrating the flaw in Wolf Eagle comparing short-term results to long-term exposure thresholds. Properly assessed, as TCEQ noted, the data did not indicate an immediate health threat.

Not to be deterred, in early 2013, Tillman led his team of ShaleTest researchers on another study of the Barnett Shale.  Once again, the team claimed to have found alarming levels of benzene, but when the TCEQ came in to investigate, they did not find the risks that ShaleTest alleged.  A TCEQ spokesman even called ShaleTest out for its faulty methodology, stating that “it is not scientifically appropriate” to compare short-term results against long-term thresholds, as the ShaleTest study had done.  He also explained that TCEQ has a network of monitors in the Barnett Shale, which constantly test for dozens of chemicals.

Still committed to the anti-fracking cause, ShaleTest and Earthworks released a report last year on the Eagle Ford Shale, which used the same dubious tactics of comparing samples over a short period of time against the long-term thresholds set by regulators.  The TCEQ responded to Earthworks, explaining that the agency had “several millions of data points for volatile organic compounds” in the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale. TCEQ added: “Overall, the monitoring data provide evidence that shale play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”

Unfortunately, ShaleTest still hasn’t learned its lesson: its latest report uses the same scientifically inappropriate tactics.  From the report:

“Benzene results from Denton, Dish, and Fort Worth are particularly alarming since they exceeded the long-term ambient air limits set by the TCEQ, and benzene is a known carcinogen.” (p. 7; emphasis added)

Specifically, ShaleTest claimed to have found benzene measurements of 6.5 micrograms per cubic meter in Denton, 12 micrograms per cubic meter in DISH, and 32 micrograms per cubic meter at a site in Fort Worth. The data listed in the report’s appendix indicate that the sampling events occurred on single days at each site. The proper TCEQ-established threshold against which to compare these results — the short-term effects screening level (ESL) — is 170 micrograms per cubic meter, or 26 times higher than what ShaleTest found in Denton. Even ShaleTest’s highest reading — 32 micrograms per cubic meter in Fort Worth — would have to be five times higher for it to cross the threshold of health concerns. Curiously, the ShaleTest report omits entirely what the short-term threshold actually is.

If ShaleTest had followed proper protocol and compared its results against the correct threshold, its team would have found that the emissions level of potential health concern is several times higher than what they found. The emissions they claimed to have uncovered would have to be sustained over at least an entire year for the “long-term” threshold to be a valid comparison value. As TCEQ stresses on its website: “‘Long-term’ indicates an annual averaging period.”

In short, ShaleTest’s tactics are deliberately unscientific and purposefully dishonest. There’s simply no excuse for an organization to be publicly and repeatedly reprimanded for its scientifically inappropriate testing, and then continue to use those same methods.

Why would ShaleTest have to resort to such blatantly flawed techniques? Because the available data – in states across the country – simply do not support their conclusions.

For example, let’s have a look at another study, which evaluated health impacts in southwest Pennsylvania.  In 2011, the Fort Cherry School District in Washington County, Pa., wanted to ensure that the children at the school wouldn’t be affected by air emissions from a well pad located approximately 900 yards away. So, the district commissioned a study to conduct air monitoring.

The researchers took air samples prior to hydraulic fracturing operations over the course of nine days.  Then, air monitors remained in the same locations throughout the completion process.  Here’s what the report concluded:

“The results of the fracking and flaring sampling periods were similar to the results obtained from the baseline monitoring period and likewise, did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.” (p. 6; emphasis added)

As mentioned earlier, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has conducted extensive monitoring and found that there’s no credible threat to public health from shale-related activities.  In fact, TCEQ’s months of testing in the Barnett Shale area showed “no levels of concern for any chemicals.” TCEQ added that “there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health also installed air quality monitors at a well sites and found that concentrations of benzene “are well within acceptable limits to protect public health,” and that “concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection took air measurements in northeast Pennsylvania, and the agency “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”  The Pennsylvania DEP also looked into wells in southwest Pennsylvania and concluded that they “did not detect levels above National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.”

A report from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection concluded that “no additional legislative rules” were required to protect public health with respect to hydraulic fracturing activities.

Interestingly, ShaleTest and its allies make no attempt to mask the motivation behind their dubious, scientifically inappropriate methods.  The ShaleTest report was likely timed to influence the upcoming vote in Denton, Tex., where voters in November will decide whether the city should ban drilling. As the Denton Drilling Awareness Group president (and well-known anti-fracking activist) Cathy McMullen said in the ShaleTest press release:

“After years in pursuit of responsible drilling with industry, and state and City government, we now know from personal experience that responsible drilling is a sham. That’s why the only way Denton residents can protect their families is to vote for a ban on fracking in November.” (emphasis added)

The ShaleTest study was designed to confuse the public into thinking that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe, and that Barnett Shale development poses a threat to the health and safety of everyone living in the region. The fact that the data – when properly analyzed – do not support that conclusion is apparently irrelevant to the “ban fracking” campaigners in north Texas.


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