SWPA Environmental Health Project Letter Ignores Facts on Ft. Cherry Study, Resorts to Scare Tactics

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project claims its mission is “…to respond to individuals’ and communities’ need for access to accurate, timely and trusted public health information and health services associated with natural gas extraction.”

But as a recent Observer-Reporter letter to the editor from the director of that organization reveals, SWPA Environmental Health Project isn’t interested in accuracy at all. Instead, Raina Rippel’s letter employs a strategy straight out of the anti-fracking activist playbook — one that encourages its operatives to “(not) worry about highly technical information” and instead focuses on props intended to elicit an emotional reaction.

The emotional prop deployed in this case is the exploitation of children.

The letter, headlined “Children at risk near drilling,” makes numerous false claims about shale development in a blatant attempt to scare parents of children who attend Fort Cherry School in Washington County.

Here’s a look at the letter’s claims, followed by the facts.

CLAIM: “The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project would particularly like to draw attention to a flawed study conducted by a private consulting firm, which has been used to defend additional wells.”

FACT: The study in question has been used to defend development for good reason. First of all, it was conducted by Cardno ChemRisk, a very well respected scientific health and risk assessment firm. It was also commissioned by the Ft. Cherry School District school board — not natural gas companies — as the letter insinuates.

Most importantly, the study took continuous air measurements at the school, well pad and a private residence before, during and following fracking operations over a three-month timespan in 2011 and 2012 and found, “… the presence and operation of a hydraulic fracturing well pad in Washington County, PA, did not substantially affect local air concentrations of total and individual VOCs…”.

The results of this thorough and comprehensive study have been known for some time now and fringe anti-fracking activists seem to be the only parties that have called its conclusions into question.

Their criticism of the study reveals why those outside of the anti-fracking movement haven’t bought into the false notion that the study is “flawed,” for instance…

CLAIM: “The report does not account for the emissions which will be released while the wells are producing, despite research that has shown that producing wells continue to emit (volatile) organic compounds and other dangerous chemicals.”

FACT: The fact that wells emit VOCs during the production phase isn’t really a bombshell revelation. It is generally well known that oil and gas infrastructure, like automobiles, emit VOCs. What is actually relevant is the fact that recent studies show VOC emissions from producing wells are at low levels protective of public health.

A recent study led by researchers at Drexel University found low levels of air emissions at well sites in the Marcellus region and explained, “we did not observe elevated levels of any of the light aromatic compounds (benzene, toluene, etc.)” and “there are few emissions of nonalkane VOCs (as measured by PTR-MS) from Marcellus Shale development.”

Another recent study on emissions in the Barnett Shale by the Houston-based ToxStrategies concluded there is no credible health risk associated with shale development. As the researchers noted: “The analyses demonstrate that, for the extensive number of VOCs measured, shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”

CLAIM: “Production emissions will occur at three well pads simultaneously, thus can produce three times the air contaminants that were detected in the Fort Cherry study.”

FACT: The notion that the presence of three well pads — as opposed to the single well pad that existed at the time of the Ft. Cherry air study — will produce “three times the air contaminants” is deliberately misleading. The total concentration of VOCs in the air are the only relevant factors, and studies of areas with hundreds of wells have found levels protective of public health.

For example, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality conducted months of testing in the densely developed Barnett Shale region of North Texas, and its samples showed “no levels of concern for any chemicals.” TCEQ added “there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”

CLAIM: “While some exposure concentrations may be understood individually, emissions are produced as a complex mixture whose combined toxicity is not known. The study does not account for the full spectrum of exposures that will be experienced at the school.”

FACT: The Ft. Cherry study monitored continuously throughout various phases of development and concluded the operations, “did not substantially affect local air concentrations of total and individual VOCs…” So researchers did in fact look at total emissions. Further, other states have conducted studies that evaluate the effects of all operations, including producing well sites, on air quality.

For example, earlier this year the University of Texas at Arlington released a study that analyzed emissions data in the Eagle Ford Shale and found, “…ambient BTEX compound emission in and around fracking sites are within the federally mandated acceptable limits for short-term exposure.” BTEX consists of benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene compounds. The study concluded,

“Air quality measurements collected proximally to producing UD oil wells resulted in detectable BTEX, albeit at lower concentrations than was observed on individual pad sites. While traveling along state highways and local county roads surrounded by active producing oil wells, ambient benzene and toluene concentrations did not exceed 500 and 2000 ppb, respectively,” (p. 386)

A University of Colorado study of the Western Slope in Colorado had similar findings. As the Grand Junction Sentinel reported,

Collett said none of the emissions findings were particularly alarming. Researchers were required to notify the county immediately if they found anything that posed an imminent health risk, and that never was necessary. Collett said standards for benzene are primarily occupation-based, and a variety of benzene standards exist and would have been applicable in terms of measuring any immediate health risk, including to the research team.

We didn’t see concentrations near those standards,” he said. (emphasis added)

CLAIM: “The toxic actions and effects of many chemicals, particularly combinations of chemicals, are not fully understood with respect to children. Many safety levels are based on healthy adult worker populations, not elementary school children.”

FACT: Actually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that’s not the case. Standards are based on the most vulnerable populations, including children:

“The Clean Air Act, which was last amended in 1990, requires EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (40 CFR part 50) for pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment. The Clean Air Act identifies two types of national ambient air quality standards. Primary standards provide public health protection, including protecting the health of “sensitive” populations such as asthmatics, children and the elderly.”

CLAIM: Exposures from nearby sites do not occur at a constant rate over a 24-hour period. Spikes in exposures within a 24-hour period will most certainly increase risk of short-term health effects. There is irrefutable evidence that such spikes occur.

FACT: This claim doesn’t even make sense. Even if a spike of emissions were to occur, this would have been documented and accounted for in the continuous monitoring that occurred over a three-month period. The Ft. Cherry study found no such spikes at levels even approaching what EPA considers potentially harmful throughout its continuous monitoring.

Even if dangerous spikes had been detected, long-term exposure to high levels of emissions are the concern when it comes to public health.

CLAIM: “A growing number of studies conducted by researchers at major research universities are finding associations between proximity to, or density of, horizontal drilling wells and health impacts in the neurological and respiratory systems, among others.”

FACT: The key word in this claim is “associations” because the studies the author speaks of have failed to find an actual causal link between fracking and adverse health outcomes.

A trio of recent Johns Hopkins University studies have been trumpeted by activists as “evidence” that fracking can adversely effect health, but none of them even attempted to collect data necessary to begin the process of proving causation. Furthermore, the “associations” found were weak at best.

A recent Johns Hopkins asthma study claimed that living in close increases chances of having an asthma attack, but that study is contradicted by Pennsylvania Department of Health data, which show that heavily drilled counties have far lower rates of asthma hospitalizations than counties that have no shale production at all. The Department of Health data also show asthma hospitalizations declined by 26 percent from 2009 to 2013, when natural gas production in the state soared.

Johns Hopkins also released a study last year claiming premature birth rates are higher in close proximity to shale development. But 11 percent of women had premature deliveries in the area closest to shale wells, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is on par with the national average of roughly 1 in every 9 babies being born prematurely – or about 11 percent of babies. This means the rates near wells were not elevated at all, as the researchers tried to suggest.

Another Johns Hopkins study tried linking nasal, sinus, migraine headaches and fatigue to shale development, but a majority of participants who reported symptoms are from areas nowhere near shale wells, and the researchers failed to gather baseline data for migraines and fatigue.

Conclusion

Actual data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows fracking has decreased pollution that adversely effects public health.

There has been a 60 percent decrease in fine particulate matter — which can cause early death, cardiovascular or respiratory harm — and 68 and 38 percent decreases in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, respectively, since 2005. Over that same period, U.S. natural gas production dramatically increased and natural gas-fired electricity generation has surged 76 percent.

Like the Ft. Cherry air study Rippel refers to as “flawed,” these data are based on factual information.

But of course, the real “flaw” in Rippel’s eyes is that the data do not fit her anti-fracking agenda. And the fact that countless similar studies taking actual air measurements have reached the same conclusion reveals why Rippel’s group has to resort to exploiting children for emotional effect in the first place.

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