“I’m a farmer, which is where the story starts,” began Kim Alexander.
Worried about health problems and the environmental impact from fracking, Kim recounted her long walk. “In October, my friend and I took to the road, the trail, the river side; 320 miles across the state of Maryland in a walking performance to educate, celebrate and protect our watershed and the communities it supports, from the far ranging impacts of natural gas development.”
Kim also visited Dimock, Pa., and gathered water from the Ely family, whose well water was made undrinkable by fracking.
I would frequently see the drilling in rural Pennsylvania when I worked in Butler and Williamsport hospitals. I was particularly disturbed by a scene at Summit Elementary like this, which, given what we know about the health dangers of fracking, struck me as a terrible threat to children.
Recently, I attended an Allegany College of Maryland meeting of the Western Maryland (WMD) state legislators on fracking. I then went to Frostburg State University to get background for this series and met Kim and other activists, and have followed their path, learning about the health risks I outlined in my earlier posts.
Background on Maryland bills
There are two competing bills in the Maryland legislature that will soon come up for a vote. SB0740/HB1325 would prohibit fracking in Maryland. Another competing bill, SB0862, from Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D) calls for a referendum county-by-county and further study and regulations. While this initially might sound reasonable, it’s not. One obvious problem is that if residents oppose the fracking, a new bill to challenge that can be proposed every year (p. 3, sec G3-4). A re-vote is not a provision if the pro-fracking faction wins. Carter Conway’s bill specifies that the regulations are to rely on the recommendations of the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission and of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but excludes studies from Johns Hopkins and other research institutions from consideration. Why would that be?
We know that the EPA has failed to protect residents from drilling, as I explained here. Public Herald has recently released a thorough study showing that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has hidden more than 9,000 complaints.
Given that about three-quarters of Maryland’s residents live in places where anti-fracking resolutions are in place, allowing fracking to be decided by the two westernmost counties is likely to disenfranchise them and put their health at risk.
Also, as Barbara Hurd, local resident and acclaimed writer, recently put it, “We live in places intricately bound to other places. Our communities are connected to other communities; our habitats to other lands. The effects of fracking do not abide by jurisdictional boundaries. No regulations can stop polluted water and tainted air from traveling wherever they will.”
Growing health concerns, yet division over fracking in MD
At the Allegany College information session, anti-fracking comments from citizens dominated. At the last Cumberland City Council meeting, 42 attended to support the ban and 13 spoke against fracking. At both, concerns focused on:
Air and water pollution and health risks from fracking
Increased traffic and accidents on windy roads
Lack of transparency, non-disclosure agreements and gag orders to hide harms
Lack of trust in safety regulations and monitoring.
Risk to the livelihood of the farmers and to the tourism industry
Dr. Robin Bissell, a family practice physician in Garrett County since 1999, worries about possible contamination of our water especially because so many families use wells so there’s little chance of detecting contamination if it occurs. Furthermore, with the weakening of the EPA, it’s unlikely that adequate regulation will occur.
Also, there are documented increases in asthma exacerbations due to air contamination. With ACA being threatened, many of our patients may find themselves without insurance. If they have symptoms, they may not seek medical attention when they should.
Two other Garrett County physicians concur. Dr. Tom Johnson added, “It is not prudent for our community to accept this risk at this time.” Another physician, who specifically noted that he is a Republican and Trump supporter, also opposes fracking in WMD.
Medical associations are increasingly voicing their opposition. The Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is supporting the bill to ban fracking altogether in Maryland, as is the Maryland Public Health Association. Similarly, the Pennsylvania Medical Society unanimously approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on fracking, because of the growing evidence of its harms.
A poll by OpinionWorks in 2015 showed 68% of Maryland residents wanted a ban or long-term moratorium; only 3% favored fracking. A similar poll last fall did not include the moratorium; 56% supported a ban vs. 28%. The margin in Garrett County, where most drilling would occur, and a Washington Post poll last fall had similar results.
The Western Maryland delegates are strongly pro-fracking and keep telling people that they have strong support from the citizens of WMD, although all the polls above contradict that. I have reached out to three local state legislators for further comment. Senator George C. Edwards returned my call. Edwards tried to reassure me about health risks. I asked, “You say that fracking will be safe and well-regulated…but who will do that?” Edwards responded, “We’re going to have the strictest regs… We’re not Pa.!” Asked about the safety of all the heavy trucking equipment carrying chemicals, polluted wastewater and possibly liquefied natural gas maneuvering on windy, mountainous roads in an area notorious for blowing snow and fog, he deflected the question, saying that gas would be transported across Maryland by pipeline—about 250 miles—presumably to Dominion Cove Point’s processing facility on the Chesapeake.
Recent protests against TransCanada’s plan to run a pipeline under the Potomac River, the water source for millions of people in the metropolitan D.C. area, also illustrate the health concerns.
Further casting doubt on reliance on regulatory oversight for our safety is Governor Larry Hogan’s (R) inaugural statement, “We must get the state government off our backs, and out of our pockets, so that we can grow the private sector.”
That’s similar to the Trump administration’s vows to deregulate safety requirements across the board and to dismantle agencies. Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA multiple times, is now the head of the EPA. It is unlikely that he or Gov. Hogan would then monitor and enforce environmental regulations.
Also, to my surprise, Del. Wendell Beitzell, who was assistant director of environmental health at the Garrett County Health Department, said at the ACC meeting, “Fracking poses no threats.”
Conflicts of interest
Beitzel’s comment astonished me, so I wondered why he felt so strongly. He apparently has considerable financial incentive to support fracking. In 2011, Maryland spent $455,000 for agreeing not to develop his farmland in Garrett County. Beitzel also introduced a bill, despite the conservation easement, to allow drilling.
Now, Beitzel has sponsored bill HB1461, cross-filed in the Md. Senate by Edwards as SB0980, to provide restitution for large landholders who can’t frack their land if there is a ban. Where do they propose the funding for this come from? The owners of renewable energy systems that generate electricity through the solar energy photovoltaic systems would be taxed 25% of their sales for this “restitution fund.” There is, of course, no similar restitution fund for damages caused by fracking.
There is a common misconception, promulgated by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. (D), who said that fracking “affects two counties where there are no jobs whatsoever” other than prisons. This is not true, as tourism has been increasing in the counties. A recent op-ed noted, “Tourism and vacation real estate provide about half of all jobs and two thirds of Garrett County’s tax base…nowhere in the world do fracking and world-class tourism mix.”
When Kim canvassed local businesses, no one supported fracking. The only people who did not sign the ban petition expressed fear that signing would hurt their businesses.
Buckel’s office e-mailed me that he believed fracking could bring “492 to 2,425” jobs. But on a WCBC radio interview, he said, “It might provide “25, 50, 100, 250 jobs”. More alternative facts, it seems. Note, too, that mostly out-of-state workers get the high-paying jobs. Local worker jobs are usually low-paid, low-skill, part-time jobs.
Tourism is also on the upswing. Garrett County has seen over 6% growth in tourism in 2016, with real estate making a comeback from historic lows in 2008, up 16% this same year. A report produced by the Outdoor Industry Association found that recreation employed about 6.1 million people, vs. 2.1 for oil and gas.
A new report from the Department of Energy says that 3.4 million Americans were directly employed by the clean energy industry in 2016 vs. 3 million for fossil fuels. Further, renewable energy employment grew by nearly 18% between Q2 2015 and Q1 2016.
It has been heartening to witness grassroots mobilization and activism. These people in WMD love their land and are driven to protect it and downstream communities. Kim even wrote this anti-fracking ballad:
There is growing opposition to fracking by health, environmental and conservation groups. New York, Vermont and Massachusetts have statewide bans or moratoria. Florida is considering a ban to protect its tourism and water—a bill that has notable bipartisan support.