Rick Shrum’s Dec. 29 article on the health of the shale gas industry – “Once a booming industry, natural gas is in midst of a bust” – accurately portrays the financial boondoggle most shale gas companies face. But what the reporter fails to point out is that, while the industry stumbles along, people living in the crucible of shale gas development are being put at increasing risk of serious health issues.
An industry in crisis actually makes public health risks worse. As profits suffer, the shale gas industry will be all too tempted to cut back on safeguards and procedures that protect the public from harm. Production will be less safe, and storage facilities and pipelines will become even more susceptible to leaks and explosions. Further, companies that go out of business often leave a substantial cleanup burden on the public.
Taking a bigger picture view, it’s likely that the shale gas industry is simply holding on until a bevy of ethane cracker plants, meant to produce plastics, comes on line in the region. But more cracker plants mean exponentially more fracked wells and more pipelines. A build-out of the petrochemical industry promises to ramp up the current assault on our health.
We know from our own research and from that of dozens of other researchers that pollutants released from shale gas production correlate with a host of health problems, such as worsening asthmas and birth defects. With more than 55 carcinogenic agents used in the fracking process, we suspect that cancers may also be a factor. Further, fracking contributes greatly to a superheated planet that causes health challenges for millions affected by hurricanes, floods, fires, and heat waves.
While the loss of jobs from the failing shale gas industry is a major concern, it’s important to remember that Pennsylvania is home to more than 90,000 clean energy jobs to date, ranking it 11th in the nation. This is more than double the number of fossil fuel jobs. With an available workforce right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, our region can be a national trailblazer in clean energy production and sustainable jobs, which would be good news for public health, too. We just need leaders with the courage and foresight to make it happen.
Director, SWPA Environmental Health Project, McMurray