Finding the truth about the health impacts of drilling in the Information Age: a remarkable new study

We are coming closer to a “smoking gun” that ties fracking to negative health outcomes. It will take time — the Shale Revolution is only ten years old and the health impacts will take years to reveal themselves, and the oil and gas industry is doing everything it can to keep us in the dark.

Today’s post highlights an important  step forward. It’s about a new study that is remarkable in its conception — it promises to cut through the secrecy and legal protections that the oil and gas industry enjoys by employing technology, science, and the collaboration of creative scientists and citizen activists all over the world.Photo: Simon Fraser University Communications

Here are the pieces that came together to make this happen:

  • Brian Schwartz

    Brian Schwartz

    Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist, and a group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland were interested in studying the health effects of living near a drilling or fracking site. The most logical state in which to do this is Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale is Ground Zero in the shale revolution.

  • There is no public map or dataset of existing drilling sites, so the researchers went to an organization called SkyTruth and its FrackFinder Program, which “maps drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) across the United States using crowdsourced image analysis of aerial and satellite imagery.” In other words, the program trains volunteers to view satellite images and identify drilling sites.
  • To find the sites, volunteers were trained to find impoundments, or ponds, where produced water from fracking is stored. Skytruth asked volunteers to look at aerial imagery of locations where drilling permits had been issued, and respond to very simple questions about what they saw on imagery taken in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. The project used a multi-phased approach to make sure there was no confusion about what was an impoundment and what was a duck pond, a shadow, or a manure lagoon. The images were shown to multiple trained volunteers, and over 70% agreement was required for each site to verify that it was indeed an impoundment.
  • Here are the number of impoundments that were discovered in each year:
Year Number of Ponds Area – Average (sq meters) Area – Median (sq meters)

In 2005 the shale revolution was just beginning, and so there were very few ponds near permitted drilling sites. As you can see, as drilling ramped up the ponds got larger. “As of 2013, the total impoundment surface area measures nearly four million square meters, scattered across (Pennsylvania). (New York’s Central Park measures 3.4 million square meters.) ” These were not all the same ponds — of the 581 ponds identified in 2010, only 116 were still there in 2013.

impoundment-81The next step will be to analyze the prevalence of individual diseases by distance from drilling sites. This will take several months, but at the end we should have some very good data about the health impacts of drilling on people living close to drilling sites.

The beauty of this is that the oil and gas industry has depended for years on keeping secrets. They come into a community and rely on spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. They purchase loyalty and silence, and work to encode this in the law. One of their tools is secrecy about well locations, which is a barrier to research.

In the Information Age, it is harder and harder to do that. In Pennsylvania the combination of technology, science, collaboration and citizen activism is breaking the code of silence. The more we know about the real dangers of oil and gas drilling, the more we can do what’s best for our communities.


Click here for an interactive map of impoundments related to shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania, as identified by SkyTruth staff and volunteers on USDA aerial survey photography from 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013.

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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5 Responses to Finding the truth about the health impacts of drilling in the Information Age: a remarkable new study

    Story by Matt Brown indicates ‘Feds’ didn’t seem to find some contamination BUT they didn’t check bad casings and ‘other’ discrepancies. If ya’ll happy with that assessment I be very, very concerned about who we trust.

  2. davidjkatz says:

    There are different types of water contamination caused by oil and gas drilling. This study looked at only groundwater contamination, the kind they experienced in Pavillion, Wyoming. There are very few documented cases of this kind of contamination.

    However, as the story says, they didn’t look at water contamination from surface spills or faulty casings. These are much more common, and are the inevitable outcome of drilling. This is how water wells get contaminated.

    There are many examples of this kind of contamination in the Bakken and elsewhere.

  3. lee wilder says:

    fascinating. Is there any comparable study planned near the Bakken? Thanks for your good work.

  4. davidjkatz says:

    Don’t know. I’m trying to set up an interview with the principal researcher in the Pennsylvania study to see what he knows about the research landscape.

  5. Pingback: New study: Women living near fracked wells have increased likelihood of high-risk pregnancies, pre-term births | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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