“GasLand” Shines Harsh Light on Fracking

An important documentary about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing is set to debut tonight on HBO (9:00 pm). The film, “GasLand”, challenges industry assertions that hydraulic fracturing is harmless to both people and the environment.

This process, also called fracking, involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Fracking involves relatively new technology, and is not without risks. This month alone, there have been two major accidents in the Pennsylvania-West Virginia region involving hydraulic fracturing, one of which involved a well explosion.

The major concern with such drilling is the chemicals used in the process. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use. According to the Environmental Working Group, fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

“GasLand”, which was awarded a prize at the Sundance Film Festival, was directed by Josh Fox, a Pennsylvania playwright who lives in the state’s Delaware watershed. According to Reuters, Fox’s interest was peaked when his family was offered $100,000 plus royalties to allow hydraulic fracturing on their property. Fox turned down the offer but many neighbors took the money.

While “GasLand” looks at the impact of fracking all over the country, one small Pennsylvania town is prominently featured. Residents of Dimock, located in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County, told Fox that drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. has contaminated their water wells with toxic chemicals, causing sickness and reducing property values, Reuters said.

The town is located in the Marcellus Shale region, a formation rich in natural gas that lies beneath parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland. The area has seen the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing in recent years. According to a recent ABC news report, the majority of people in Dimock leased their land to Houston-based Cabot, which has 62 gas wells in the area.

But there was trouble almost from the start. In the winter of 2008, drinking water in several area homes was found to contain metals and methane gas that state officials determined leaked underground from Cabot wells. In the spring of 2009, the company was fined for several other spills, including an 800-gallon diesel spill from a truck that overturned.

In September 2009, more than 8,000 gallons of dangerous hydraulic fracturing fluid was discharged following a series of spills from a well site run by Cabot. The drilling fluid involved in the spill was manufactured by Halliburton and is described as a “potential carcinogen.”

This past April, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fined Cabot $240,000, and ordered it to permanently shut three wells and install water-treatment systems in 14 homes within 30 days or face a $30,000 a month fine. Its more than two-dozen pending drilling applications were also put on hold. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

“The whole town was turned completely upside down,” Fox told Reuters “None of that stuff is mentioned when land men come to somebody’s front door or send them a letter in the mail saying, ‘Hey we’re going to give you $100,000.'”

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