overheard - what our readers have to say

Julie Post

With dismay I read your cover story, “The Oilman’s Paradox,” which interviewed Matt Telfer ’78. He endorsed hydrofracking, a method of mining natural gas and oil by injecting pressurized water and chemicals into mine shafts drilled in shale deposits.

The waste water from the gas extraction process is then pumped back underground at high pressure. Research is ongoing about potential groundwater pollution from this process, but the evidence is already in that there is a direct correlation between waste-water injection and unwanted seismic activity (earthquakes). This link has been firmly established by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) because in many regions studied, the earthquakes being monitored stopped as soon as a moratorium on waste-water injection was declared. In several states from the Rockies eastward, hydrofracking has already been kicked out. Nuclear power plants and hydrofracking do not get along, so shale-rich New York should beware, having at least four nuclear plants, one almost right atop a fault line!

I began researching hydrofracking in March 2011 when the ground shook underneath my apartment building. After calling the local USGS, I learned that the quake had been felt in four states besides my own (Missouri) and that the epicenter of the activity was in Guy, Ark. A series of quakes followed that averaged 4.0 on the Richter scale.

I learned that fault lines both active and inactive crisscross the geology of the entire landmass east of the Rockies. The tremors were conveyed from hundreds of miles away from their source by these fault lines. Many of these fault lines underlie populated regions.

The sounding technology currently in use by the oil and gas companies cannot tell whether a fault line is active or not, and some are too deep to be found. So the geologists, drillers and engineers often go in blind in areas where seismic activity has registered before and hope that earthquakes will not happen. This is without regard to potential damage to property, loss of lives, etc. Several quakes 4.7 on the Richter scare shook Oklahoma City last year. Seismic activity that rocked Columbus, Ohio, got hydrofracking kicked out in that state, as it was in Arkansas a year earlier. The Rocky Mountain arsenal region in Colorado also has experienced quakes that were directly linked to hydrofracking’s waste-water injection. The quakes in all of these states stopped as soon as waste-water injection stopped.

The East Coast is far more populated than the Midwest, so the dangers are much greater. Shale-rich New York has at least four nuclear plants, one of which sits almost on top of an earthquake fault line. Nukes and earthquakes do not mix, as Japan has most ably demonstrated. Their nuclear reactor was built with American technology, supposedly above earthquake damage. Foolproof, it is not. (Few buildings outside of California are built to resist earthquake damage.) So the risks are great, and the more that states respond by kicking fracking out, the higher the price of gas is likely to get.

The chemicals being used by the miners are unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, so any toxic mixture can be used. The chemicals in the water have been, according to the wife of a driller, spread over pastureland and eaten, via the grasses that grow there, by local livestock, entering the food chain when we consume their meat and milk. But nobody is monitoring the effects this can have on people, livestock or other fragile ecosystems. The chemical soup differs from gas company to gas company.
Potential groundwater pollution from the waste-water injection process is also a problem. Our underground water is a national resource that should be better protected.

Washington, D.C., is playing deaf, dumb and blind to this situation. When I called up the EPA shortly after all of the earthquakes here in the Midwest, they professed no knowledge of them. News is either slow to travel or information is being deliberately repressed and kept from the public. News media, when covering stories on hydrofracking, simply omit any mention of seismic activity or actual cases of groundwater pollution. This leaves it to inquisitive, intelligent individuals to do our own research and get our facts straight from the horse’s mouth when possible. The oil and gas companies doing this work refused to speak to me when I announced I am a journalist. So I relied heavily on the testimony of the scientists, information specialists and, yes, the secretaries of the USGS offices in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. I also relied on testimony of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission.

Special thanks to my sources of information: Shane Khoury, deputy director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission; John Fouke of USGS in Rolla, Mo; Stephen Horton of the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information; Science Information Officer Eric Jones of the Colorado USGS; and David Johnson, geologist at the Arkansas USGS.