ON A wooded hillside near us is a small spring, a shimmer of clear water rising from steep banks. The water is cool and pure: deer drink there, wild turkeys, woodchucks - anyone can. Us. The water comes from the aquifer, an underground network of veins and pores, underlain by layers of hard rock. Rainwater seeps down into it, through filtering layers of soil. Later the water rises, into springs and lakes.
Nature has always provided us with clean water; we have to have it. Our bodies are more than 70 percent water, and we need it more than light for life. All living organisms need clean water: our grainfields, our forests, our farms, our herds, our gardens. Our children.
Clean groundwater is our most valuable resource. We’ve survived for thousands of years without oil and gas, but we couldn’t live a year without potable water. There is no substitute, no synthetic way to produce enough for our needs. We’re dependent on water and the system that produces it: natural hydrology, with which fracking plays merry hell.
Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground. There drilling companies shatter the rock, making the natural gases available for retrieval. The companies have refused to disclose the substances that they use, but assure us the process is safe. Last December, however, the EPA announced a documented link between fracking and chemical water contamination. It’s official, though not news.
In 2008, the EPA’s test well in Wyoming showed levels of the carcinogen benzene (used in fracking) at 1,500 times the level safe for human consumption. More than 1,000 cases of water contamination near fracking operations have been documented in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In Ohio, a house exploded from the buildup of methane in the water supply. In Louisiana, 16 cattle dropped dead after drinking from a pool of fracking fluids. In one house, tap water contained so much flammable gas it could be set on fire. Cancer rates and neurological damage have risen among nearby residents. Sterility and stillbirths in livestock herds have increased. Benzene, methane, phenols, acetone, toluene, and napthalene - all lethal fracking-related substances - have seeped and leached through the landscape.
We’re poisoning our groundwater, but that’s not all. According to seismologists, fracking causes earthquakes. Disposal wells inject wastewater deep underground at extremely high pressure, forcing fluids into the fault lines of the “basement’’ rock. This operates like a hydraulic jack, forcing the layers explosively apart. Last year 11 seismic events were clustered around a disposal well in Ohio, culminating in a 4.0 earthquake. This was human error: Drillers overshot a layer of sand, drilling into “basement’’ rock. The whole East Coast basement layer is riddled with faultlines; this will happen again.
Everyone makes mistakes: surgeons, drivers, airplane pilots. But their errors, though awful, are finite. A plane crash doesn’t recur with each turn of a faucet, each birth in a new generation, each silent spring. But there are many chances for error in the process of fracking, and a well poisoned with lethal chemicals is poisoned for good. There’s no going back. You can’t clean an aquifer, or seal it off. The great Ogalalla aquifer extends across eight states, from South Dakota to Texas. No one knows how far water leaches underground, nor how to contain its silent drift. Underground water knows no barriers. Like air, water is constantly in flux, and the toxic plumes from fracking will reach other wells.
We need a domestic source of energy, but at what cost? And who chooses? None of the damaged landowners chose damage as the price of cheap energy. Their wells, their land, their animals, their health - all were ruined against their knowledge and their wills. No one warned them what might happen, nor took responsibility when it did. Do we want to poison our landscape so we can run our air conditioners?
The drilling rigs march eastward. What will we do when our own water turns lethal? Where will we turn?
When our woodland spring turns toxic, what will happen to the deer who drink from it, the wild turkeys, the young foxes? Us? Where can we go?Roxana Robinson is a novelist and a frequent writer on the environment. Her most recent book is “Cost.’’