Allowing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Western Maryland would result in a high likelihood that public health would suffer, according to a report released on Monday by the University of Maryland.
Air pollution from the diesel engines and trucks used in fracking would likely cause coughs, severe headaches, burning eyes and other health problems in Garrett and Allegany counties where drilling is contemplated, according to researchers with the University’s School of Public Health.
The noise from fracking operations would also bring moderately high risk of negative health impacts, including sleep disturbances, stress and annoyance, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, said the report by the University’s Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health.
Wastewater from fracking could also pollute local streams and ground water. But earthquakes – such as experienced near drilling sites in Oklahoma and elsewhere – would be unlikely because of the geology in Maryland and the types of wells that would be dug here.
“There is significant concern for air quality," said the report's lead author, Dr. Donald Milton, Director of the University’s Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health. "That is one of the areas we thought there was a high likelihood of something untoward happening."
The 173-page report is designed to help advise Governor Martin O’Malley's cabinet as his administration decides whether he should lift the state’s de-facto moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
The report outlines 52 steps Maryland can take to prevent or minimize the public health problems, including setbacks to require that drilling pads be kept a safe distance away from local residents.
O’Malley’s secretaries of environment, health, and natural resources issued a written statement saying they will seriously consider the University of Maryland study’s findings. But they noted that the risks outlined in the report are largely based on information from states where the pace of gas development was rapid and intense, and without stringent regulations and government oversight. Maryland’s regulations are likely to be stricter if it allows hydraulic fracturing, the O'Malley administration officials said.
Injecting water laced with chemicals and sand into shale rock formations has revolutionized U.S. energy supplies and created thousands of jobs. But fracking has also industrialized rural landscapes across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and elsewhere.
Travis Windle, a drilling industry spokesman who works for the Pennsylvania-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, said that fracking and increased natural gas production actually improve public health. He said that burning natural gas releases less soot, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants than burning coal, which is the main alternative for generating electrity.
“In Pennsylvania, where we’re leading the nation now in natural gas production increases, we’ve seen an enhancement – not a degredation of any sort – as it relates to air quality," Windle said.
But Rebecca Ruggles, Director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, said that the study raises too many unanswered questions. She suggested more research is needed before anything moves ahead on fracking in Maryland.
“Our view is that Marylanders should not become the next guinea pigs for testing the gas industry’s impact on people, Ruggles said. "We should learn from what’s happening in other states, first This report is a good start, but the work is not complete.”
A commission appointed by Governor O’Malley to study hydraulic fracturing should make its final recommendations in upcoming months. And then O’Malley – or the next governor – will decide whether to open Maryland up to the drilling industry.