HEALTH EFFECTS: The side effects of natural gas drilling remain largely unexplored by scientists. Image: nysenate.gov
On a summer evening in June 2005, Susan Wallace-Babb went out into a neighbor's field near her ranch in Western Colorado to close an irrigation ditch. She parked down the rutted double-track, stepped out of her truck into the low-slung sun, took a deep breath and collapsed, unconscious.
A natural gas well and a pair of fuel storage tanks sat less than a half-mile away. Later, after Wallace-Babb came to and sought answers, a sheriff's deputy told her that a tank full of gas condensate—liquid hydrocarbons gathered from the production process—had overflowed into another tank. The fumes must have drifted toward the field where she was working, he suggested.
The next morning Wallace-Babb was so sick she could barely move. She vomited uncontrollably and suffered explosive diarrhea. A searing pain shot up her thigh. Within days she developed burning rashes that covered her exposed skin, then lesions. As weeks passed, anytime she went outdoors, her symptoms worsened. Wallace-Babb's doctor began to suspect she had been poisoned.
"I took to wearing a respirator and swim goggles outside to tend to my animals," Wallace-Babb said. "I closed up my house and got an air conditioner that would just recycle the air and not let any fresh air in."
Wallace-Babb's symptoms mirror those reported by a handful of others living near her ranch in Parachute, Colo., and by dozens of residents of communities across the country that have seen the most extensive natural gas drilling. Hydraulic fracturing, along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents' most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.
ProPublica examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states—Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania—that are drilling hot spots. Our review showed that cases like Wallace-Babb's go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in earnest in 2008.
Concern about such health complaints is longstanding—Congress held hearings on them in 2007 at which Wallace-Babb testified. But the extent and cause of the problems remains unknown. Neither states nor the federal government have systematically tracked reports from people like Wallace-Babb, or comprehensively investigated how drilling affects human health.
"In some communities it has been a disaster," said Christopher Portier, director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Environmental Health. "We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole."
Exemptions from federal environmental rules won by the drilling companies have complicated efforts to gather pollution data and to understand the root of health complaints. Current law allows oil and gas companies not to report toxic emissions and hazardous waste released by all but their largest facilities, excluding hundreds of thousands of wells and small plants. Many of the chemicals used in fracking and drilling remain secret, hobbling investigators trying to determine the source of contamination. The gas industry itself has been less than enthusiastic about health studies. Drillers declined to cooperate with a long-term study of the health effects of gas drilling near Wallace-Babb's town this summer, prompting state officials to drop their plans and start over.