In our last episode of ‘Rocks Are Our Friends”, A BP For The Rest of Us Aunt Toby discussed the issue of using hydro-fracturing to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. A lot of people are ‘agin’ it – a lot of others think we’re idiots.

Today’s lesson is a discussion of ‘Where Rocks and Food Intersect’. No, we are not going to discuss salt mining in the Finger Lakes. I’m still stuck on the Marcellus Shale (Aunt Toby is a tad obsessed). A story appeared in papers regarding an announcement by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, quarantining a herd of cows on a Wellsboro, PA farm, due to exposure to used fracking fluid (sometimes called ‘brine’) when the wall of a retaining pond used by East Energy in their drilling operations leaked.

All over the field next door.

Oh, and there wasn’t any security around the pond. So the cows had access to the pond itself.

“According to Rhoads (East Company’s representative), hydraulic fracturing on the farm began April 2. The holding pond contained only fresh water until April 9, when it began collecting wastewater. Rhoads said East first heard of a possible leak on May 2 and went out to investigate.

East and the agriculture department differed on one point in the timeline, with East saying it had immediately fenced off the affected pasture area. Redding’s statement said cattle had "potential access to the pool for a minimum of three days until the gas company placed a snow fence around the pool to restrict access." Rhoads said water was removed and that testing using the state environmental department’s strictest standards began the next day; the affected soil was removed from the site by May 5.

The holding pond was removed entirely two days later, and the hydraulic fracturing phase was completed.” PA DOA Quarantines Cows

Let’s look at this, step by step:

– The company ‘first heard of a possible leak about a month after a farm fresh water holding pond started to become contaminated with ‘wastewater’ from the drilling operation. It is impossible from the article to know exactly where the drilling is taking place – is it ON the farmers’ property itself? Is it on a neighbor’s property? Either way, one fact remains – East Energy was not – and perhaps is not required by PA regulation, either – monitoring fresh water sources in the area of the drilling for contamination. Considering that contamination of fresh water sources is a huge concern in the whole ‘fracking’ in the Marcellus Shale, this is a huge red flag.

– Once “the hydraulic fracturing phase was completed” the holding pond and the soil were removed from the site. In other words, the Commonwealth of PA allowed the company to continue to drill, even while it knew that soil, water were contaminated and that the cows had been compromised. The biggest worry is that the fracking wastewater contains not only chromium, but also strontium, which ‘hides out’ in the bones and therefore would be dangerous not only for the long term survival of the animals, but also their milk, any unborn calves they have, or their meat.

So, the animals have been quarantined for period of up to January 1 of next year. The farmer must keep them, keep them fed, keep them as healthy as he can, allow testing, and…not sell them or any products from them. In other words, lose income because of the company’s negligence.

Question: Will the Commonwealth allow for the farmer to sue the company for the value of the cows? For the contamination or and therefore loss of the fresh water pond and the field? How about making the company rehabilitate the field? You see, cleaning up soil and water contamination is no easy trick. And if state governments make drilling for natural gas expensive enough that using hydraulic fracturing just is not cost effective any longer, perhaps they will…just…stop. The Marcellus Shale and the natural gas have been there a very long time – the only reason the companies are after this now is that the price of natural gas is now higher than their ‘costs’ of hydraulic fracturing – we need to get State governments to include other costs – and potential costs – to bring the total lifetime costs of a well to a point where cost-benefit ratio of hydraulic fracturing becomes negative. That is the only thing the companies will listen to – if it no longer ‘pays’ to do it, then they will stop.

(photo courtesy of David Clow)