A new nonprofit trying to raise awareness about water contamination and its connection to drilling is offering low-income families help with testing their water, soil and air quality .
ShaleTest.Org, based in Texas, recently launched its nationwide effort, emphasizing the importance of testing for the presence of chemicals before and after drilling, or hydraulic fracturing for underground oil and gas reserves, begins.
ShaleTest founders Tim Ruggierro, a property owner in Wise County, Texas, and Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, Texas, both have personal experience with development on or near their property. “To me, it’s just not that difficult to connect the dots as to where the problem is,” Ruggierro says. “It’s very convenient for the industry to go around saying there’s not one case of contamination due to hydraulic fracturing because there’s no testing.”
Tests are conducted by trained volunteers who take the sample and ship it off to one of several labs that have been vetted by the group. “The lab must be nationally certified,” Ruggierro says. “This means that the lab must (meet) the national testing lab criteria, so they have been certified, by the Feds as well as their respective state.”
Ruggierro says the group’s goal is not litigation. But if landowners decide that’s the route they want to take, he wants their tests to stand up in court.
“We are not opposed to drilling,” he says. “We are, obviously, opposed to being poisoned.”
Testing for air and water typically runs in the $700 to $900 range per test, although other contingencies such as labor, mileage and tech fees can be thrown in – costs ShaleTest hopes to help cover. Currently, the group is focusing on environmental monitoring, but they hope to be able to test livestock and people for chemicals in the future. Those tests can cost thousands of dollars and are typically not covered by insurance.
The testing will follow a set of guidelines set up by Wilma Subra, founder of the Subra Company, a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm in New Iberia, La. Subra is also a member of the Earthworks board, a nonprofit working to protect communities and the environment from mineral development, and has spent more than 40 years studying chemicals used in oil and gas operations. She also received the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Award for helping citizens with environmental issues.
Most calls for assistance from ShaleTest have come from states such as West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, but Ruggierro says he is starting to get inquiries from people in western states impacted by energy development. Currently the group is funded by donations and has handled fewer than 10 cases, but interest is growing rapidly. Ruggerio currently divides his time between his full-time job and answering questions, both from landowners and the media. He’s shown reporters from “60 Minutes,” the New York Times, Al Jazeera English, the Wall Street Journal, Telemundo and two different German news agencies what energy development looks like in his backyard.
In recent years, the health impacts associated with the extraction industry, especially when it comes to hydraulic fracturing and water supply, have received more scrutiny.
Southeast Wyoming is on the verge of an oil and gas boom as operators begin to explore the Niobrara formation, an area rumored to be quite lucrative for the industry. At a mid-December community meeting in a Cheyenne elementary school, about 300 area residents turned out to ask panelists about oil and gas development in the area. Their questions mostly centered around the issue of water and air quality, underlining a growing concern about the link between energy development and environmental contamination. Speakers on the panel encouraged residents to have baseline testing performed on their water.
“Oil and gas are established and exist to make money, and they do it very well, and they should,” Laurie Goodman with the Landowners Assocation of Wyoming told the audience. “There’s nothing wrong with making money. But it’s not their responsibility to take care of the landowner. Their responsibility is to get to the oil and gas. There’s no requirement for baseline water monitoring.”
Industry leaders, however, say the negative attention is unwarranted.
“There is no known incident that fracking itself caused groundwater problems,” said Sherri Stuewer, vice president for environmental policy and planning at Exxon Mobil, during a recent forum on natural gas hydraulic fracturing on public lands hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
At the same forum, Tom Doll, supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said chemicals in groundwater may not be from industry, but from improperly built water wells.
“Very little (is) known about these shallow groundwater supply wells,” he said.
He said most people think their water wells are pristine and well-engineered, but most are “just a hole in the ground with some plastic pipe or steel pipe,” many of which were drilled years ago.
“Then when the red or green or blue or white truck rolls through, they have someone to attack,” he said. “We really need to look at what is the cause and what is the effect.”
That link seems clearer to some than others.
“There’s a whole host (of chemicals) that do different things as part of the fracking process, corrosion inhibitors, antibacterial things, things that make it very slick,” Subra says. “(Within that group there are) known and suspected cancer-causing agents, chemicals that cause birth defects, mutations and a whole host of acute health impacts, respiratory impacts, cardiovascular problems,” she says. “If they have an event when they are doing the fracking and release it into the air or onto the ground, it has been documented as causing a lot of these acute health impacts. People in adjacent areas will talk about respiratory impacts and skin burning.”
She says people have been so focused on hydraulic fracturing, they forget chemicals are used throughout the entire process.
“It’s not just the fracking fluids,” Subra says. “It’s the whole process”
She says studies analyzing chemicals from drilling have turned up nasty chemicals like benzyne, ethylebenzyene, tolumine, xyline, all of which carry significant health consequences. Many chemicals found are often odorless, colorless and tasteless and require professional testing to detect, which can be costly.
Ruggierro says in the time he has spent traveling around the country researching and speaking about contamination from energy development, he’s heard too many stories and seen too much evidence to think the problems are coincidental — including the experience he’s had with his own land.
Currently, Ruggierro is involved in his own lawsuit against the industry. Last year, an Aruba Petroleum drill rig showed up about 300 feet from his house.
Not long after drilling began, the family’s drinking water, which was virtually crystal clear when tested prior to development, started showing traces of strontium, boron and a chemical that resembled MTBE, or Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, a chemical compound used in gasoline. According to the EPA, MTBE is a potential human carcinogen at high doses.
There were also problems with drilling mud blowouts and air contamination, causing nosebleeds in the neighborhood, all of which were predominantly ignored by regulators, Ruggierro says. Areas where drilling mud spilled (about three acres’ worth) have been reseeded multiple times, but no longer grow anything. Tanker trucks show up at all hours of the night.
Ruggiero says while the company paid his family a lump sum of $30,000 in their surface-use agreement (a contract between an energy company and a landowner which compensates the owner for damages to the property), part of that money has paid for environmental testing that’s already been done, and the rest is socked away for future testing.
To add to the environmental problems, the Ruggierros are now officially upside down on their house. After bringing in an independent appraiser, they found the house they paid $250,000 for was now only worth $78,000.
“Who would have thought living out in the country would be so dangerous?” he says.