New Report: Shale Gas Extraction Poses Risk to Vulnerable Populations in Pennsylvania


Pennsylvania’s vulnerable populations are often situated near Marcellus Shale gas extraction, which has had a track record of pollution, accidents and violations, according to a new PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center report, In the Shadow of the Marcellus Boom: How Shale Gas Extraction Puts Vulnerable Pennsylvanians at Risk.

The study shows that permitted well sites exist within two miles of more than 320 day care facilities, 67 schools and nine hospitals statewide.

“Just weeks after a gas well blowout in Bradford County spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced flowback water and forced seven local families to be evacuated from their homes, our report shows that our most vulnerable populations across the state could be at risk to a similarly dangerous scenario,” said Erika Staaf, clean water advocate for PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center. “Whether it’s air or water pollution, accidents or explosions, we’ve seen that the effects of Marcellus Shale gas extraction don’t necessarily end at the drilling pad’s borders. We cannot put our most vulnerable populations at risk of these problems any longer.”

Children are likely more vulnerable to the impacts of gas extraction because they are still developing. The sick and diseased, meanwhile, are more susceptible to health effects from pollution exposure.

“I’m like any other American parent who wants the best for their children.  From the basics of water, food, healthcare, and a home, to the joys we had in our own childhood – ice cold lemonade after a hot day of, climbing trees, playing hide and seek in the woods and building space ships to explore outer space,” said Michelle Boyle, a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital and a parent of two daughters. “For my own children I now worry if the woods that our children are playing hide and seek in will suddenly erupt in an explosion, like in Independence Township in Washington County, or like in Canton, Bradford County, where seven families had to be evacuated.”

From Pittsburgh to Scranton, gas companies have drilled more than 3,000 wells in the Marcellus Shale and the state has issued permits for thousands more. During 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued permits to gas companies to drill or deepen nearly 3,450 additional wells. With the industry projecting on the order of 50,000 new wells over the next two decades, gas extraction activity is likely to move into even greater proximity to more vulnerable populations across the region.

Our research found that:

  •     The Pennsylvania DEP recorded 241 violations of environmental regulations at Marcellus wells within two miles of different day care facilities, and 40 violations within two miles of individual schools, from January 2008 to June 2010 alone – not including traffic safety violations by tanker trucks.
  •     At every stage in the process, Marcellus Shale gas extraction creates risks for water pollution, including spills and leaks that can pollute waterways with chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid and naturally occurring metals and salts from the shale formation that can be harmful to human health. Gas has also been documented to contaminate aquifers up to seven miles from a well site.
  •     Extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale also creates hazardous air pollution from truck trips, pump engines, gases vented from wells, contaminants from processing plants, and fumes evaporating from wastewater ponds.
  •     Anecdotal reports suggest that living near gas extraction sites can cause health impacts, although little formal scientific study has been completed to date.

“On behalf of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, we commend PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center for compiling, analyzing, and synthesizing data regarding the impact of the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale on our Commonwealth and its citizens,” said Mary Beth Sweeney, former chair of the Indiana League of Women Voters Study Committee on Natural Gas Extraction from Marcellus Shale. “The information on the proximity of drilling sites to day care centers, schools, and hospitals may provide impetus for the development of appropriate public policy.”

PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center is calling on leaders at all levels of government to act immediately to implement the rules and laws necessary to protect Pennsylvanians’ health and environment from gas extraction, including the following:

  •     Pennsylvania should designate pristine places and locations near where people live or work off-limits to gas extraction, including schools, daycares and hospitals; ensure gas companies pay the full cost of gas extraction and clean-up; strengthen clean water laws; halt the use of toxic chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing process in favor of safer alternatives; increase the resources available to state regulators for enforcing the law; revoke drilling privileges for the worst offenders; require gas companies to better report important information to the general public as well as the DEP.
  •     The federal government should end the special treatment for the gas industry and apply the nation’s core public health and environmental laws to gas extraction just as it would regulate any potential threat to public health or the environment.

“In the face of growing concern about the effects of Marcellus Shale gas drilling, it’s imperative our local, state and federal leaders take action now,” said Staaf. “We can’t wait for another disaster to occur to implement true safeguards for our most vulnerable populations and all Pennsylvanians.”