A new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives shows that natural gas wells are routinely sited too close to schools and homes, threatening public health and safety. The research is the first to systematically examine the adequacy of setback distances prescribed by state and local authorities.
New natural gas wells are encroaching on the places where people live, work, and play. (Tweet this) Most of these new wells are being drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which highly pressurized chemicals are injected into shale rock.
Fracking is proliferating at a remarkable speed. A decade ago, only 2% of US natural gas output came from fracking; today it’s close to half. With new wells and industrial infrastructure encroaching on people and communities, many are becoming concerned about proximity to this heavy industry.
Setback distances are established by local and state authorities in PA, TX, and CO, and vary from 150 to 1500 feet. In all three states, variances can shorten the allowed distance. As the researchers write,
“The majority of setback distances in the areas we studied are not derived from peer-reviewed data, data driven analysis, or historical events – they are a compromise between governments, the regulated community, environmental and citizen interest groups, and landowners.”
Patrice Tomcik is the Western Pennsylvania field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force. She lives in Butler County, Pennsylvania, one of the most heavily fracked counties in PA. Patrice is the mother of two children, one of them a leukemia survivor. There are plans to drill a new well pad a half-mile from her children’s school, in the Mars Area School District.
Patrice sees the new well pad as a potential threat to her children as well as the other children at the school.
“I am concerned that this could expose my children and the other 3,700 students in attendance at this school to harmful air pollutants and pose a safety risk. We know that children are especially vulnerable to pollutants.”
Exposing cancer survivors like her son to carcinogenic benzene, commonly emitted from natural gas wells, is extremely risky.
Natural gas wells pose a host of threats to health and safety. The new study examined risks from well blowouts, explosions, fires, toxic gas clouds, and benzene.
What happens during a blowout? According to researchers:
“Blowouts can cause drill pipe, mud, cement, fracking fluids, and produced water (water that has been used in the hydraulic fracturing process) to be ejected from the bore and expelled at high pressure. These drilling materials can be followed by production waters, gases and/or petroleum. Gas well blowouts can be very dangerous since a spark can set off an explosion.”
Blowout frequency is approximately one per every 10,000 wells, according to historical data.
Researchers tried to quantify what would be an adequate setback to address the risks. They found that current setbacks were not large enough to protect people from severe burns during a blowout scenario. They also used air measurements and vapor dispersion modeling to show that current setbacks could allow for unsafe exposures to benzene and hydrogen sulfide.
There is no magic number of feet that would constitute the perfect setback. Indeed, the researchers write that “there is no defined setback distance that assures safety.” Still, examining the science reveals that setbacks are in many cases obviously inadequate to protect public health in the event of a blowout, explosion, fire, gas cloud, or simply in the event of elevated benzene emissions.
As Patrice says,
“This new study supports what moms living in the Marcellus Shale have known for a long time: Our children are not adequately protected from the hazards of unconventional gas wells.”