By Paula Getzelman and Tia Lebherz
When the safety of an industrial practice is called into question — as is the case with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the priority of policy must be to protect public health, the environment and the economy. When research is prescribed to answer the safety questions, we must apply the precautionary principle — not allow the practice to continue unabated — while that research is conducted.
After reviewing a new independent scientific study based on data available on certain extreme oil extraction methods in California, Monterey Herald editors opined that “More research into fracking is needed” (July 23). However, the editors did readers a disservice by stopping short of calling for a halt to fracking while such research is conducted, particularly since incomplete California data and robust studies elsewhere indicate that fracking poses grave dangers to nearby communities.
On July 9, a long-awaited independent study by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) on fracking and acid stimulation (another extreme extraction method) confirmed that oil regulators lack the data and the power to adequately protect the public and to prevent health risks associated with fracking and other dangerous forms of oil development. Essentially, the scientists who authored the report — mandated by California Senate Bill 4 — found that, while we can’t be certain just how dangerous these methods might really be, the risks are all too real.
These risks are well documented elsewhere in the United States. For example, a Pennsylvania study found that 41 products generated in fracturing operations contained methane, ozone, hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Seventy-three percent of these products had six to 14 different adverse health effects, including skin, eye and sensory organ damage; respiratory distress such as asthma; gastrointestinal tract and liver disease; brain and nervous system harms; cancers; and negative reproductive effects. Findings like these, though not based on California operations, should certainly give us pause.
Here in California, state oil and gas regulators are under fire for failing utterly to enforce even very limited regulations on the industry. Recently, California state officials admitted that the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources allowed drillers to illegally inject hundreds of illicit wells with billions of gallons of oil industry wastewater, putting California’s aquifers and groundwater at risk in the midst of one of the worst droughts on record. Additionally, the oil industry operates hundreds of wastewater disposal pits that pose water pollution risks from leakage into the groundwater, and air pollution risks as the toxic mix evaporates.
In a cautionary tale, Palla Farms LLC, a 92-year-old farming company in Kern County, is currently in a legal fight with four oil producers for neglectfully contaminating groundwater the farm uses to irrigate cherry and almond trees. We shudder to think of the consequences to the “Salad Bowl of the World” if that level of contamination occurred here in Monterey County.
Gov. Jerry Brown spoke volumes this spring when he refused to place a moratorium on fracking and other extreme oil extraction methods after a legal petition was filed by over 150 organizations across the state. He placed oil and gas interests squarely above the health and welfare of the people, forcing local regions to act to protect themselves. Our neighbors in San Benito County and Santa Cruz County have banned fracking and extreme extraction; it’s time for Monterey County to take our future back into our own hands. We have enough evidence and we can’t wait for the state. It’s time to protect Monterey County and ban fracking now.
Paula Getzelman is the co-owner of a small vineyard and wine business in the San Antonio Valley near Lake San Antonio. She serves as the director of Protect Monterey County, a grassroots organization working to place a citizens’ initiative banning further fracking in Monterey County on the November 2016 ballot. Tia Lebherz is California Organizer with Food & Water Watch based in Oakland. Her family has lived in Monterey County for 50 years.