Terry Smith wrote a thoughtful and provocative article in the Oct. 6 issue of The Athens News with the title “Can our region really afford to say no to ‘fracking’.” Terry’s analysis sides with those who want regulation of fracking but he is also concerned that Athens needs jobs and revenue. He speculates reasonably that the gas companies will make great profits on their investments in the Wayne National Forest and elsewhere in Athens City and County. Therefore, government and taxpayers should expect they should” pay more to protect local water supplies.” The implication of Terry’s stance is that, given the concerns of local folks and the ongoing economic distress of the area, gas companies be required to put some of their profits into a fund to pay for any damage they do to the environment.

There is no doubt that the Athens area needs basic public services and good jobs that pay a better-than-poverty wage and, in the absence of publically-provided health care, provide decent health care benefits. The most attractive jobs would be jobs in renewable energy industries that would help Athens and other communities have both jobs and healthy environments at the same time. Unfortunately, although jobs in solar, wind, geothermal, and certain kinds of environmentally-friendly bio-fuels are increasing, they still represent a small percentage of all jobs and overall energy production in Ohio and across the United States.

Bear in mind also that there is no evidence of how many local jobs would be created in the event that gas companies commence all of the tasks that are required for the extraction of shale gas. Still, whatever the numbers, the prospect of jobs and revenues from such mining are not to be casually dismissed.

At the same time there are various environmental and health impacts that can result from mining shale gas. Terry refers studies that he admits may well have been carried out by researchers and organizations with a gas-industry, pro-fracking bias. On the other side of the issue, there are research studies and at least many hundreds of reports on various health and contaminated-water effects of shale gas mining. In Bainbridge Township, a suburb of Cleveland, a home exploded in December 2007 after gas escaped from a nearby fracking well. In an article written by Isaac Wolff for Scripps Howard News Service, “State investigators determined that the release contaminated 23 water sources, but found no evidence pollutants reached groundwater, according to a later 2008 state report on the incident” (11/18/2010). Wolff writes additionally, “Industry insiders say bad cement jobs are common. And, quoting James McCartney, “who has more than two decades experience drilling wells in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” “I don’t believe than anyone really actually knows just how good the cement is at any given point in a well.” One further point from Wolff’s report is that state inspection of gas wells is uneven. Quoting Mike Coyer, owner of Black Swamp Oil Field Services, which maintains plugs and cleans gas and oil well in Portage, Ohio, many inspectors “lack experience” and “have no idea what to look for,” even though “some of the substandard practices he see alarm him.”

ProPublica.org is an excellent source for explaining the complexity of the entire process related to extracting shale gas and on reviewing up-to-date information and research findings on the effects of shale gas extraction. Just on Sept. 16, 2011, a long article by Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnets was published on the ProPublica site entitled “Science Lags as Health Problems Emerge Near Gas Fields. The article is based on the examination of governmental environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviews with scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states – Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania – that are drilling hot spots,” that is, with many wells already being operated. Here is one of many troubling facts they write about: “Hydraulic fracturing, along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents’ most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.” The authors of the article also find that there is no serious scientific research being carried out either by medical or governmental groups, or by gas companies, on the health effects of shale-gas mining.

Duke University researchers carried out peer-reviewed research published by the National Academy of Science in April of this year. The researchers found “that average methane concentrations in shallow drinking water in active gas drilling areas were 17 times higher than those in non-active areas.” The drinking water in active areas was considered to be potentially an explosive hazard.

It comes down to some hard choices. Do we want short-term economic benefits for some residents? They will decide; it’s private property. Or do we want to protect our precious water and public forests from which we all benefit? If our water sources are contaminated, where will we get water? Unfortunately, it appears that we cannot have both. I vote for clean water over shale-gas mining and for the public interests over private interests.