West Virginia State Report: No Major Health Threat from Shale

Among the many accusations hydraulic fracturing opponents have tried to perpetuate is the claim that shale development causes rampant air pollution, which in turn poses a serious threat to human health. Many even carelessly (but also deliberately) throw around terms like “cancer,” “infertility” and “birth defects,” most of the time without any evidence to support them.   EID has covered this phenomenon before, when the Center for Environmental Health released an inflammatory report that targeted women and children in an attempt to gin up a health scare.

Reality, however, typically tells a different story. In fact, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released a study that threw cold water on the activist theory of out-of-control air emissions from shale development.

From the report’s conclusion:

“Based on a review of completed air studies to date, including the results from the well pad development monitoring conducted in West Virginia’s Brooke, Marion, and Wetzel Counties, no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time.  As evident by the many air studies underway, these initiatives will result in more complete information over time. Once available, this data will help advance and guide future rule development. In the meantime, the existing regulatory framework provides a basis for implementation of requirements to minimize and mitigate human health and environmental impacts” (p. 9).

This latest report follows a previous study done for the West Virginia DEP by the School of Public Health at West Virginia University (WVU), which evaluated the noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds from horizontal wells. That study found that “there are no indications of a public health emergency or threat.” As the State Journal reported, the air toxics coordinator for DEP’s Division of Air Quality, Renu Chakrabarty, explained the findings of both of these studies:

“In our analysis of the study that WVU did for us, we did find that some of the benzene levels were elevated sometimes at some sites; that did not hold true across all three types of … monitoring equipment that we had out at each site,” Chakrabarty said. “One out of three of those methods did show elevated values — so we don’t want to discount that, but we didn’t have correlation.”

The lack of correlation led DEP to conclude that, where detected, the benzene did not come from relatively continuous wellpad activity but from more intermittent diesel engine activity.

The latest DEP study reaffirms that point, stating that “vehicle traffic and engine exhaust present during well pad development are likely sources of intermittently elevated emissions of dust and volatile organic compounds,” while also explaining that these emissions can be and indeed already are being reduced

“As discussed in OOG’s May 28, 2013 report to the Legislature, ―Noise, Light, Dust, and Volatile  Organic Compounds Generated by the Drilling of Horizontal Wells Related to the Well Location Restriction Regarding Occupied Dwelling Structures,‖ there are a number of mitigation strategies available to reduce nuisance issues associated with vehicle traffic and vehicle engine idling. For example, vehicle idling may be minimized pursuant to the Diesel-Powered Motor Vehicle Idling Act. Additionally, the use of DEP-approved dust suppressants and lower traffic speeds would aid in minimizing dust emissions.” (p. 5)

Meanwhile, a study conducted by EPA Region 3 in the summer of 2011, which monitored air quality at Skyview Elementary School in Morgantown, found “[e]xtremely low concentrations of carbonyls, volatile organic compounds, and hydrogen sulfide,” adding that “no indications of public health impacts related to hydraulic fracturing were found,” according to this latest West Virginia report.

The lack of major public health impacts also raises an important point of context, which is commonly lost in the public discussion: emissions themselves are not the key indicator of whether or not a particular activity is “harmful” or not. Rather, it’s about the levels of those emissions and the exposure time. Americans are exposed to benzene every day, for example, when they get in their cars or fill up their tanks at the gas station. Walking to work in the city means being exposed to a variety of forms of air pollution. But typically the levels are below health thresholds.

In other words, it’s not the presence of certain compounds that signifies an immediate and dire threat, contrary to what anti-fracking activists try to suggest.

This latest assessment from West Virginia also mirrors what other regulators across the country have concluded: hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible threat to air quality or public health. This includes analyses by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

By the way, that Pennsylvania DEP study found that over 500 million tons of emissions have actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air because of the increased use of natural gas, and the Breakthrough Institute (an environmental think tank) recently found that natural gas utilization and the “associated surge in fracking have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”

In truth, emissions of all kinds have been slashed thanks to the development and utilization of natural gas, which is a boon for public health – and that’s the reality that hydraulic fracturing opponents persistently refuse to accept.

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