Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. Source: Creative Commons.
By Joseph Otis Minott
Although it’s taken far too long – and so much work lies ahead – confronting the climate crisis has become a defining policy goal of the U.S. government, and people are starting to notice. International conferences like COP27 draw extensive coverage, and more and more parts of society are taking part in the conversation around climate change. Whether that talk will lead to necessary action is still unclear, but people are recognizing the need to move away from fossil fuels, including fracked gas.
Yet climate impacts are just one aspect of the threat posed by fossil fuels. A growing body of research is confirming a dangerous link between fracking and a wide range of health problems. It’s time Pennsylvania residents and regulators demand these health risks be addressed, including by establishing safer distances between fracking sites and people’s homes under state law.
A recent Yale School of the Environment report details the established connection between fracking and health risks. Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York report that 17.6 million people live within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well. That’s a public health crisis, according to the healthcare professionals and scientists in the group.
Earlier this year, Yale researchers found that children living near Pennsylvania wells that use fracking to extract gas (aka methane) are two to three times more likely to contract a form of childhood leukemia than their peers who live farther away. Another study from Harvard found that elderly people living near or downwind from gas pads have a higher risk of premature death than seniors who don’t live in that proximity.
Across thousands of peer-reviewed research papers, the health effects linked to exposure to fracking include respiratory conditions, heart disease, cancer, stress, and adverse effects on the developing fetus. For at-risk groups and all Pennsylvania residents, greater protections are needed. There are a few commonsense actions we can take now.
The first is to require safer distances between these toxic fracking sites and the areas where people live and work. Known as setbacks or protective buffers, these limits on how close fracking infrastructure can be to buildings, schools, hospitals, and natural resources are established in Pennsylvania law. Currently, Pennsylvania only requires that well pads be 500 feet from residential buildings. Some well pads are 40 acres across – yet can be within 500 feet of a school or hospital. According to the Yale study and many others, a 500-foot barrier is woefully inadequate in protecting populations from the health hazards of fracking.
Earlier this year, Clean Air Council partnered with several Pennsylvania environmental groups to form Protective Buffers PA. The Coalition calls for statewide action creating larger protective buffers between fracking sites and our communities and natural sites.
Some states, such as New York, have banned fracking because of its negative impact on public health. Pennsylvania should do the same.
But if fracking is going to be allowed, Protective Buffers are a proven and no-cost solution to the public health crisis caused by fracking.
Yet in the context of a growing body of research and the tremendous threat of climate change, these setbacks should only be a stepping stone toward a more permanent and impactful solution: to deliberately phase out fracking and methane production and transition to a renewable energy.
Fracking poses a threat to current and future Pennsylvania residents.
It poses a threat to our current and future environment. It poses a threat to our current and future communities. It’s time to create a safe distance between our schools, hospitals and residences and fracking as we work to phase out fossil fuels for good.
Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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