When my neighbors and I first put the facts together – that our Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls was built atop a chemical waste dump that made our kids sick – we had many questions. How could our public officials and institutions have let this happen?
A decade after we learned our families were being exposed to toxins, then-New York Health Commissioner David Axelrod reflected that the episode would long remain “a national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations.”
Governor Cuomo and his health commissioner clearly learned from these wise words, announcing the state would ban fracking within its borders.
It’s a lesson President Obama and his administration should absorb, because they have consistently failed the American people on this issue by ignoring and minimizing the science on fracking.
By placing public health and safety as a first priority, the Cuomo administration demonstrated national leadership.
New York rightly allowed its health department to direct the final deliberation regarding whether to allow fracking. When Health Commissioner Zucker called his counterparts in states that already permit fracking, he discovered that they “weren’t even at the table” when the initial decisions were made.
With substantial scientific study demonstrating the potential harms of fracking and raising troubling, unanswered questions, the Cuomo administration took the right public health and scientific approach: ban fracking rather than expose New Yorkers to serious potential harm.
In the context of a crisis, Obama’s half-measure – a methane reduction plan for inherently dirty fuel, extracted through a destructive and dangerous process – is inadequate.
It’s time for the president to acknowledge the entire, difficult truth about fracking and take real steps to eliminate its inherent harms.
Oil and gas aren’t bridge fuels. They’re fossil fuels that perpetuate our country’s continued reliance on them - whether through additional infrastructure approved by federal agencies or additional lands opened up for drilling. Further investments in them distract from efforts to move our country to renewable energy, while inevitably contributing towards the exacerbation of climate change.
Leadership on climate change requires departing from these energy sources, not minor fixes around the edges that maintain them.
The Obama administration must also acknowledge the science and experiences of Americans that shows fracking does immense harm to people across our nation by contaminating water, polluting air and threatening public health.
The truth, which Interior Secretary Jewell (a former oil/gas industry engineer) and others in the administration have continued to ignore, is that there’s no comparable body of scientific study that shows fracking is safe.
A Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) analysis of the more than 400 peer-reviewed studies to date on the impacts of fracking and shale gas development is startling:
· 96 percent of papers published on health impacts indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes
· 87 percent of original research studies published on health outcomes indicates potential risks or adverse health outcomes
· 92 percent of all original research studies on air quality indicate elevated concentrations of air pollutants
· 73 percent of original research studies on water quality indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.
The science is quickly emerging, with an overwhelming number of studies coming out in the last two years, and this analysis shows that it’s hardly mixed – it’s nearly all bad news.
Residents in states with fracking have already been subjected to these environmental and public health hazards – the Obama administration isn’t only ignoring science, it’s also ignoring everyday Americans it should represent.
The AP unearthed hundreds of complaints about well-water contamination caused by drilling in four states.
A Colorado School of Public Health study found air pollutants near fracking sites at levels sufficient to raise risks for cancer, neurological deficits and respiratory problems. American Lung Association data showed worse air quality in intensely fracked rural areas than in large metropolitan areas.
These are just a handful of hundreds of studies and problems related to fracking, that also include earthquakes, birth defects, and other social costs and hazards. They’re only the tip of the iceberg, as the science that the industry has attempted to stymie for years now emerges.
These aren’t unproven anecdotes to be marginalized, and neither was the poisoning of our families in Love Canal in the 1970s.
The federal Superfund program derived from that catastrophe: a corporation putting toxic chemicals into the ground. Fracking represents the same threat of public health disaster; with corporations pumping a propriety mix of secret, undisclosed chemicals into our land, air and water. Thanks to the “Halliburton loophole,” fracking fluids are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and Superfund law.
But as the peer-reviewed science shows us, those fracking fluids can be incredibly dangerous. Which means that each fracking well-pad represents another potential mini-Superfund site.
The tide is turning against fracking, as science mounts and the American people increasingly oppose it.
Obama has two choices: remain behind the curve with stale, timid leadership on fracking and leave a toxic legacy or demonstrate bold leadership that truly addresses climate change and protects Americans from extreme drilling practices.
Gibbs, a former Love Canal resident, is director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Virginia.Top of Form