Hydrofracking Health Effects, Water Loss Concerns Fuel Push For New Mexico Moratorium

New Mexico lawmakers are considering a four-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing permits, more commonly referred to as “fracking”, amid growing concerns over the health effects and water impact on the controversial oil and gas extraction procedure.

New Mexico Senate Bill 149, “Prohibit New Fracking Licenses” received a recommendation for passage from the state senate’s judiciary committee on February 17. If it passes through the Senate, House and receives the governor’s approval, it would prevent the state from handing out any new fracking permits for four years.

Proponents of the bill point to growing concerns over fracking health risks, and the impact of the process on the water supply of a state that already has water supply problems.

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Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling and fracturing of shale rock to release oil and gas, resulting in the injection of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressures to crack the surrounding rock, thus releasing the natural gas underground and allowing it to flow to the head of the well.

Problems from fracking have previously been linked to negative environmental effects to the surrounding communities, due the impact on drinking water, as well as increased dust and exhaust from drilling rigs, compressors and the transportation of the water, sand and chemicals. The process has also been linked to increased earthquake activity. The extent of the potential harm to humans living close to these fracking sites has yet to be determined.

On February 13, at a legislative hearing, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, from Ithaca College’s Department of Environmental Studies, and co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals, submitted testimony supporting the moratorium, and warning state legislators of the emerging science of the health impact of fracking procedures.

“Public health problems associated with drilling and fracking include poor birth outcomes, respiratory impacts, cancer, heart disease, and mental health problems. The studies here are very consistent, especially those that look at pregnancy outcomes. Studies of mothers living near oil and gas extraction operations consistently find impairments to infant health, including higher risks for pre-term birth, low birth weight, and birth defects,” Steingraber wrote. “We also know that at least 55 known or possible carcinogens are used as ingredients in fracking fluid. Of these 20 are linked to leukemia or lymphoma.”

Steingraber noted that in her home state of Colorado, researchers have discovered higher rates of leukemia among children and young adults in areas which are heavily populated with hydraulic fracturing wells. In addition, she warned that the health and financial burdens fall most heavily on poor and minority communities, who do not have the political clout or funding to fight a legal battle to prevent hydraulic fracturing operations from setting up camp in their backyards in the same way affluent white communities can, and frequently do.

“Our findings clearly show that fracking is an environmental justice issue with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, rural, and impoverished white communities bearing the brunt of the exposures to toxic waste because well pads and associated infrastructure, including flare stacks, pipelines, and compressor stations, are disproportionately sited in non-white, indigenous, or low-income communities,” she told state senators. “These patterns are consistent across the nation.”

Beyond the health concerns, Steingraber and other proponents of the bill warn hydraulic fracturing is a drain on the state’s limited water supply.

Fracking procedures involve shooting sometimes millions of gallons of water at high pressure into shale and other underground formations to crack them open and release trapped pockets of oil and gas. However, unlike virtually every other water use known to man, fracking appears to permanently take that water out of the hydrological cycle.

When water is used normally, it eventually finds its way into the air through evaporation, or into the groundwater after being absorbed by the soil. However, with fracking, the underground formations, often below the water table, are cracked open, which mean the water fed into them descends deep into the earth and is, essentially, removed permanently from the cycle which replenishes the world’s fresh water. Only 3% of the planet’s water is fresh, drinkable water, and it is particularly scarce, and often a source of contention, in western states like New Mexico.

The Colorado River, which supplies much of the New Mexico and other states with fresh water, has been under drought conditions for some time, and that is expected to worsen as climate change continues and intensifies.

Fracking Health Problems

Fracking has become an increasing concern among environmentalists, lawmakers, and local communities, as dozens of plaintiffs file lawsuits against the drilling companies for contaminating their local wells and exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered their property values.

A number of fracking lawsuits have been filed in the United States, with one of the most recent verdicts issued in March 2017 by a federal jury in Pennsylvania that awarded two families in excess of $4.2 million in damages over fracking tainting their drinking water. The two families were the last of more than 40 families in the Dimock, Pennsylvania area to resolve lawsuits over fracking problems.

Fracking operations also face an increasing number of lawsuits over earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states. Recent research has linked fracking wells to an unprecedented increase in powerful earthquakes across the South and Midwest. U.S. government geologists now say that Oklahoma suffers more earthquakes than California, due entirely to fracking and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.

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