The list of potential consequences from pumping water and chemicals deep underground in order to break up rock formations and extract natural gas seems to keep getting longer. The process, known as fracking, has grown in controversy … but what exactly is its impact on our food supply?
Energy company secrecy makes it tricky to establish a causal link between fracking and public health threats, but a new study by two veterinarians has gathered anecdotal evidence from concerned farmers. Case studies reveal accounts of sudden deaths of cattle, as well as reproductive and neurological problems in other animals in six states over the Marcellus Shale, where much of the fracking has taken place.
Bloomberg details the recurring theme of food safety unease among farmers:
An organic farmer from southeast Ohio told me he has abandoned his cash crop, ginseng, for now, concerned that contaminants would enter his product. He began noticing changes around his 20-acre property in 2007, when a fracking operation began dumping wastewater nearby. He lost quite a few deer that were drawn to the brine and antifreeze in the fluid.
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 head of cattle after they drank wastewater from a fracking site in Tioga County. The fear was that a radioactive contaminant in the water, strontium, would end up in beef.
Energy industry groups dismissed the study and impassioned stories, claiming they have no basis in science. But the mystery of what's really happening to these animals is due to the proprietary information protections that energy companies enjoy, shielding them from disclosing what fracking chemicals they use.
It wasn't until December 2011, according to the article, that the EPA drew a connection between fracking and water contamination.
Once again, the burden of proof is placed on the farmer to prove the threat exists, rather than on the industry. It doesn't help that fracking is exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, although EPA may soon shrink this loophole.
How many incidents will it take before serious preventive efforts begin? According to GAP coalition partner Food & Water Watch, who has been working hard to raise awareness on this issue, “there have been more than 1000 documented cases of water contamination near drilling sites around the country.”
Just as with agribusinesses and other chemical companies that affect our food source, the energy industry should be held accountable for its actions, not protected behind a veil of secrecy. While lawmakers continue to debate fracking, we must rely on the experiences of those on the ground to blow the whistle and come forward with their concerns.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.