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"Fracking" Prompts Health, Environmental Questions about Gas Extraction

May 19, 2010

CHARLESTON, W. Va. - A process used to extract underground natural gas is causing health and environmental concerns.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," injects a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into the ground to release natural gas trapped between thin layers of rock. Fracking is used in West Virginia and other states to get gas out of the Marcellus Shale.

Todd Heller, senior manager with the National Wildlife Federation Public Lands Campaign, says the practice uses and wastes a lot of water, but the big concern surrounds the chemicals used, and companies' claims that the fracking mixtures are their trade secrets.

"When we tell people that, this company is injecting chemicals into the ground, through your groundwater, they're sort-of stunned; and then they say, 'What's in those chemicals?' And we tell them, 'We don't know what's in those chemicals.'"

Heller says oil and gas companies will often pay fees to residents near extraction sites, either up front or over time, to compensate them for any issues that might crop up with their wells.

"The problem is, when those wells or the water resources are poisoned and contaminated, the value of their property is virtually worthless. It's a short-term benefit for a long-term problem."

Heller says cash-strapped states can't afford to dig deep themselves, to explore the possible dangers of fracking. He believes the federal government will ultimately have to play the role of enforcer.

"That's why we've called for federal regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee all of this natural gas development."

Industry officials say there's no solid evidence that fracking is causing problems with underground drinking water supplies. Five years ago, the industry won a battle to exempt fracking from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV