Fresh Water, What’s That?
by Chelsea Shaker
Like a scene out of National Geographic magazine, entire families and towns waited in never-ending lines for a fresh supply of clean water- the difference is it happened right here in the United States. Over 9 counties and 300,000 families in West Virginia suffered from over 7,500 gallons of calcium chloride and glycerin being spilled into the Elk River and contaminated their water supply just miles from the West Virginia American Water Co., the regions main source of fresh water. Major parts of Charleston, W.Va and various town had tanker trucks by the thousands bring them fresh water to sustain until conditions were examined and cleaned up, which is still currently active.
The cause of the spill stems from the company Freedom Industries, Inc, and their coal-cleaning facilities in Charleston, who in light of the spill moved the remaining 75,000 gallons of contaminants to a second storage site 10 miles from the spill in Nitro, W.Va. This location was also cited for safety violations. The violations cited issues such as no documentation of inspection of the facility in the entire history of its’ operation, as well as no records of employee training within the past 10 years. More serious violations being that of holes noted in the contaminant containers found at ground level, which leaked into a storm drainage system then on into the river. Freedom Industries has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the final outcome of this mess is yet to be determined.
In late January, the W.Va Bureau of Public Health issued a statement advising pregnant women not to drink the water “until there are no longer detectable levels” of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a coal-processing chemical. The statement said it was making the recommendation “out of an abundance of caution” after consulting with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is one of the most controversial oil spills since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and eventual oil spill in 2010, most commonly known as the “BP spill”. The incident contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with 4.9 million barrels of crude oil off the Louisiana coast and ultimately caused a devastating ecosystem and marine-life catastrophe, as well as effecting fishing ports, businesses, and tourism all across the coastline.
Drilling for wells in search of oil has been done for centuries. The earliest known history of drilling for oil is found in China in 347 CE, where wells were drilled down to 800 feet with bamboo poles and the oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. In more recent history, when land is tapped for oil with success, a boom of big industry begins- it is the staple of society, being mainly used as a form of fuel and now as a form of clean energy.
There are several forms of oil wells: Oil rigs built off coast lines in the ocean, on land, and more recently, a technique called ‘hydraulic fracturing’.
What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking”, is the newest craze in the oil industry for drilling for natural gas, being promoted as a “cleaner, safer way to drill”. Fracking is a complicated process. After big oil companies locate the natural gas in the ground, the process begins for drilling wells. In some areas, the oil and gas are underneath a layer of earth known as shale rock. The shale rock is broken up through a process of forcing a mixture of water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high velocity through tubes drilled down into the ground, which then breaks open the rock and the oil is excreted. During the process, 2 to 4 million gallons of fresh water are used to drill down, at times, depths of 1 mile or more. Afterwards, the chemicals are forced back above-ground, retrieved from the well and stored in contamination vessels to be treated and disposed of. This leaves millions of gallons of contaminated water, due to methane gas seeping up to the surface from the wells.
Renewable Energy Efforts Effecting Public Health
The long list of chemicals used for this process has been scrutinized and questioned by environmentalist groups for years due to contaminations across the country from the use of fracking. With over 120 known chemicals to be used with coal and gas drilling, at least 30 of which are known carcinogens, everyone has a right to be concerned and demand answers, including the full list of substances used and better regulations, if nothing else, for proper storage facilities.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have petitioned for a complete list of chemicals used in this process for years, with little progress on behalf of the oil companies and U.S. Congress’ support to retrieve this vital information. Federal funds have been stripped from the EPA which effects the environmental protection efforts for stricter regulation across the United States. This act of utter dis-concern for the country’s public health interest by our own government, having allowed oil companies to wreak havoc on American soil and contaminate our oceans, lakes, ecosystems, and now our own fresh water supply.
In the wake of the West Virginia oil spill and life slowly going back to normal, stay tuned in to the follow-up process. What actions will be taken to ensure this won’t happen to any more towns desperate for a renewable energy source? Are they left with taking whatever help can get to bring a sense of economic stability in their area, by allowing fracking? Perhaps it’s time to consider the state of Vermont’s approach to the fracking issue and ban it entirely. Only time will tell how far American’s are willing to go at the expense of their rights to a clean environment.