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February 7, 2013

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The local water supply is at risk of contamination from oily, rainbow–colored pools as a result of hydraulic fracturing into Chattanooga shale to yield more oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” essentially entails drilling into shallow beds of energy-rich shale and injecting a mixture of water, sand and other chemicals to obtain more natural gas at higher and faster rates.

On paper, fracking seems progressive. This process produces most of the county’s natural gas and is endorsed by major corporations who feed the increasingly voracious American demand for self-reliant natural energy sources. Contamination prevention is allegedly enacted in the form of confining layers, sealants and cement casings, which can—but don’t always—prevent the spread of waste. The studies on health issues are only just beginning to surface despite the long history of fracking practices.

During a Jan. 28 forum hosted by the Tennessee Sierra Club, theses truths became evident. Dr. Henry Spratt, of UTC’s  department of biological and environmental sciences, and Joe Wilferth, head of UTC’s English department, both addressed proposed fracking in Hamilton County.

A lack of regulation appears to be the major issue, as oil and gas companies have signed leases on valuable private property giving them access to the underground mineral rights for drilling wells. Shady rulings surround these leases—allowing shallow wells to be fracked 100 feet from any stream, 200 feet from any water body used for human or livestock drinking water, and 330 feet from any place of residence—all without notifying the public if using less than 200,000 gallons of water and chemicals. “If one of these wells comes up 330 feet from your home, you’re probably going to know,” Wilferth said.

 Besides the inconvenience, noise and likely decrease in property values, having a hydro-fracked oil well near homes poses obvious health and safety issues. Some advocates for fracking claim the drilling is so far under the surface that it can’t harm drinking water—but data has proved the contrary. One study conducted by Duke University found evidence of methane contamination in shallow drinking-water systems due to fracking in the examined region.

The study pointed to a lack of federal regulation on fracking when compared to other forms of fossil fuel extraction, as well as the fact that fractured waste is not registered as hazardous. Being labeled as “solids” helps companies avoid reporting the possibly controversial matter. Waste material is sometimes stored in containers of lower quality than those used to store garbage in landfills. 

Michael Burton, supervisor for oil and gas regulation for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, recently responded to emails from residents concerned with fracking rules. He noted that the claim that hydraulic fracturing “has left homes and farms abandoned, livestock gone” was “stupid, because there’s no recorded incident of that happening.”

Technically correct, but ask the 17 cows reported dead after coming in direct contact with escaped hydraulic fracturing fluid found in Louisiana, not Tennessee. The “out of sight, out of mind” fallacy may be coming into play here. Just a guess.  

So how does this science affect you?  Essentially, your home could potentially be at risk and you may have no idea. A recent study of drilling activity near the Harpeth River revealed flammable and explosive levels of natural gas vented from the top of the well, and crude oil was seen in a nearby creek two months after drilling.  While the exact locations of the leased Chattanooga properties are unknown, drilling could occur at any time and affect surrounding areas.

The University of Tennessee is proposing to lease over 8,500 acres of public (that’s right, public) property to oil and gas companies, in the hopes they can better study the effects of fracking on the environment.

Proposed regulation policies are open for public comment until Aug. 3 and can be viewed at harpethriver.org. If you’d like to write or call Burton, city council or the state senate, you might quote a Dimock, Penn., resident whose water supply had been entirely ruined by fracking: “I can live without natural gas. I can’t live without water.”

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February 7, 2013

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