Jobs. Good jobs. Average salaries over $74,000. Sounds like a good thing for Arkansas, according to many looking for economic stability. A consortium of oil and natural gas producers proudly announces on its website
that the industry employs more than 20,000 workers throughout the state. Southwestern Energy alone says it employs more than 1,300 people who live and work in the Fayetteville Shale area. Arkansas needs industry and the tax revenues that go with that, so business and government is generally supportive of modern hydraulic fracturing methods used to extract natural gas from the place that calls itself the "natural state."
|Typical Arkansas Fracking Site near Homes|
Citizen groups that also support statewide industry have begun to question whether the modern process of extracting the gas, called fracking, is done with enough safeguards for human health. They were concerned about a slew of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 that coincided with large amounts of spent fracking fluid being injected into the earth. They're concerned about clean water and clean air and long-term health effects for Arkansas residents as well as the long-term well being of their beautiful state.
|Venting Gases at Rural Arkansas Refining Facility|
On the same road in rural Arkansas as a natural gas refining facility and compressors sits an abandoned church where parishoners decided they could no longer meet. Two abandoned houses also sit along the road, close to the facility. A local tells a story of the neighbor's chickens dying, and the family eventually moving out. My guide tells me to look from the roadside at the gases venting atop a small tower. Hard to capture on camera, they are visible with the naked eye. There is a hint of something in the air and I start to cough.
|Refining Facility and Compressor with Abandoned Church and Homes nearby|
Fracking is exempt from many federal measures protecting clean air and water, leaving the Environmental Protection Agency nearly powerless to enforce safeguards. A report
about 2008 air quality testing by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (via an EPA grant) admits that the agency's work is incomplete and not able to satisfy long-term safety questions. The ADEQ report states, "The greenhouse gases emitted annually from Fayetteville Shale gas production are equivalent to the emissions from approximately 650,000 passenger vehicles (USEPA GHG Equivalencies Calculator). The annual emissions from Fayetteville Shale are expected to have increased substantially since 2008 because of the rapid growth in the number of active wells and gas production." Yet residents don't get regular alerts about how the gas production is affecting what they'll breathe from day to day. Global Community Monitor
has trained Arkansas citizens to start monitoring the air quality for themselves. GCM spokesperson Ruth Breech said, “As it relates to natural gas, what we're seeing nationally is that there is truly an epidemic happening right now. People are sick, they’re getting sicker. We need to stop and assess what are undocumented health effects.”
|Abandoned Backflow Tanks Used in|
Natural Gas Fracking Operations, Near Homes and Farms
Are the financial incentives of fracking worth the other costs? Not to Beverly Langford. Her family at first shared in the profits by leasing some of their land near Bee Branch for natural gas drilling and fracking. They later were told they didn't own their mineral rights after all. Yet they had no power to make the industrial park in their former cattle pasture go away. I asked if she would take such an opportunity again. Langford answered, “It wasn’t an opportunity to us, we didn’t want them here. And no, would I want them here? No, not at
all!" She cautioned other families to think long-term and not believe that they'll necessarily profit by signing a natural gas lease.
Langford says she does commend Southwest for being more accountable than some energy players have been in the past. Even on the best days, she must endure heavy machinery and lots of comings and goings. Southwest's management said, "We take pride in being accepted as an important part of each community in which we operate, and that compels us to continuously carry out our operations responsibly and with high standards." Chesapeake Energy was a large holder of Fayetteville Shale gas leases until 2011, when it sold many of those to BHP Billiton. All in all, Langford has regrets, “If I could go back in time and make this something that
never happened, I definitely would.”
April Lane is co-director of ArkansasFracking.org, and the mother of a preschooler. She says she got concerned around the time of the earthquakes and now organizes community watchdog programs, including the air monitoring bucket brigade with Faulkner Citizens Citizens Advisory Group. ArkansasFracking.org
shares little known details about what happens during the fracking process. For instance, water is mixed with toxic additives in order to do the job of fracturing rock to release the natural gas, and millions of gallons of liquid are involved. Lane encourages other citizens to get informed and speak up for their rights, even if they aren't scientists. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that pumping 7 to 12 million gallons of toxic fluid down into the earth is probably not a good idea. And putting a well 200 feet from someone’s front door and where children play is cutting it way too close. There are certain common decencies that these companies just turn their backs on, they don’t take the time to inform residents of what they're doing, and in my opinion it’s because they know that what they’re doing is harmful."
Next time: should fracking wastewater, even cleaned up, be allowed in freshwater streams?