By Kaya Sena
It is spaghetti night in the Carucci household tonight. The family’s father has returned from a month-long job, and by the virtue of being his daughter’s best friend, I am lucky enough to be invited to the celebration. Mr. Carucci works in the dangerous and highly controversial field of fracking, where he helps to drill into the shale. Next, the shale is pounded for several weeks by a high pressure mixture of water, sand, and other chemicals in order to release the natural gas reserves trapped inside. The process is as environmentally damaging and potentially treacherous for workers as it sounds, but Mr. Carucci will defend the practice until his lungs give out. After all, the paycheck he receives is what is funding our dinner. Yet the long-term repercussions of fracking are undeniable, and this is what causes my conscience to twinge as I scarf down Mrs. Carucci’s pasta. Supporters of the fracking industry have never claimed that it is environmentally conscious — their perspective is that the pollution and health risks are a justifiable exchange for the families it provides for and CEOs whose pockets it lines.
The fracking industry is notorious for the environmental damage it causes, especially the industry’s impact on water. Just one fracking site — known as a “fracture” — will require almost 3.6 million gallons of water, much of which is taken from reserves in South and Central America that are desperately needed by local populations. That water is then mixed with sand and carcinogenic chemicals and blasted into shale containing oil, which further pollutes it. The residual water has been found to contain significant amounts of odium, barium, manganese, iron, aluminum, arsenic, and selenium. Over 3.4 trillion liters of this contaminated water are produced per year, and it infiltrates human water supplies far too often.
Fracking also wreaks havoc on the air quality, releasing damaging chemicals into the atmosphere by the ton. Researchers from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) collected 111 samples from the air within 10 inches of frackers faces (often referred to as personal breathing zones). They found extremely high rates of silica in the air, which is widely used to open the shale fractures. At each zone, they found that samples exceeded occupational health criteria in some cases by ten times or more. These quantities far exceed what can be filtered by masks and protective gear. It has been proven time and time again that fracking is disastrous for human health, even when all is going according to plan. In an industry as high-stakes and dangerous as fracking, small mistakes can lead to tragedy. In a study on fracking, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that 457 oil spills had occurred in eight states from 2006–2012. Half of these spills had been preceded by previous accidents, making them even more tragic due to their preventability.
The pollution of our water and air is not just a concern of tomorrow; it is affecting our lives today. Pollutants associated with fracking have been known to cause severe headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, and birth defects. As of 2020, there is no federal requirement for fracking companies to report the chemicals they use, so communities are often unaware of the potentially hazardous chemicals surrounding them. This lack of transparency also influences the care that those affected receive because doctors do not know exactly what contaminant may have caused the ailment. Fracking has had a profoundly awful impact on the health of surrounding communities. Babies born in areas with a fracking presence have lower birth weights and more deformities on average, and the water has been associated with myriad health issues. The air pollution is just as dangerous; people living within a 20 mile radius of a fracking site have significantly higher rates of respiratory disease. Additionally, fracking typically takes place in impoverished rural areas, which means that the people impacted by this pollution are disproportionately low-income Americans. The damage to their living environment only serves to further trap people in poverty due to higher medical bills and lower property values. The industry’s history of polluting freshwater, the air, and human lives earned the widespread criticism it has faced in recent years. However, it also has ardent supporters, and they exist for a reason.
Fracking’s primary benefit lies, of course, in economics. According to a 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fracking is projected to create over 3.5 million new jobs by 2035. As of 2017, the API claims they employ over 7.5 million people. The fact of the matter is that there are millions of middle class Americans who rely on their jobs in fracking, and many of them don’t have a college degree or significant training in another field. Any regulations placed onto the industry will impact everyone with a career in gas and oil, along with their families, and this needs to be taken into account.
Fracking has another clear benefit, and that is the resource it extracts: oil. As politicians continually cry out that we must stop relying on foreign oil and that gas prices must drop, US-based methods of oil production become increasingly more attractive. As fracking took off in America (a process often referred to as the ‘Shale Revolution’), gas bills dropped almost $13 billion dollars, and it is estimated that fracking saves consumers almost a full dollar a gallon at the gas pump. The same people most affected by the negative environmental impacts of fracking (low income, rural Americans) are also the ones who are most affected by variations in gas prices, due to lack of public transportation. It is also worth mentioning that the majority of manufacturing in America is dependent on oil, and US manufacturing costs are now ten to twenty percent lower than those in Europe, where fracking is banned in many countries. This is the reason why so many towns in America are eager to establish a fracking site; it essentially guarantees jobs, a drop in local gas prices, and potentially even a return of lost factory jobs.
An oft-cited example of one of these towns is Dimock, Pennsylvania. The town was the heart of the Shale Revolution; hundreds moved from surrounding areas for work in the industry, and, in turn, they spent their paychecks at local businesses in Dimock. The environmental costs were a worthy sacrifice — until they weren’t. The town aquifer was contaminated by lead, magnesium, and other metals and minerals, which led to disaster. The water turned brown and bitter, and people had to turn to drinking expensive bottled water. One woman’s well spontaneously combusted, and a man described the water as “… so bad sometimes that my daughter would be in the shower in the morning, and she would have to get out of the shower and lay on the floor…” because the effect of the chemicals were so dizzying. The citizens of Dimock wanted to move, but the value of their homes had plummeted so much that selling would be an unsurvivable loss. Dimock residents filed a class action lawsuit against the fracking company, Cabot Oil & Gas, which ended in a settlement and no significant losses for the industry executives — just their former employees.
People on all sides of the fracking debate must reckon with a single fact: fracking will not last forever. Eventually, there will be no more oil to extract and the industry will die. Despite this, an immediate and total end to the practice is simply not feasible in 2021, but change can still be made. Fracking’s detrimental effects on the environment are clear, but advocates for the practice point to developing technology works that will cheaply and effectively filter contaminated shale water, so it is fit for human consumption. Filters have already been implemented in the Marcellus Shale region. The results were encouraging; millions of gallons of this recycled water have been used for livestock, irrigation, and fire protection. And as of right now, thirty percent of the polluted water that cannot be filtered is reused in other shale fractures, showing that the industry has taken at least some positive steps. As the question of sustainability for future generations gains more and more traction in the American conscience, there will hopefully be a push for greater regulation of the industry and a slow phasing out of oil. But there will always be people who fight to preserve fracking because there will always be corporations that profit from and communities who rely on it.
This elicits a question: is it worth the risk? Residents of Dimock would say no, but the Carucci family would certainly say yes. While there absolutely need to be regulations to prevent disaster, those of us who promote the closure of work sites need to grapple with the fact that there are real people who rely on the industry to feed their families. There needs to be a realistic plan in place for them to continue to make a living, whether it be job training programs, government stipends, or a combination of the two. At the end of the day, oil is finite, and in my view, the long-term prices we all pay are not worth the temporary profits fracking companies gain.
Kaya Sena is a high school junior from the Florida Keys and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.