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Gas drilling impacts: PA farmer Terry Greenwood’s cows gave birth to zero calves this year, after ten dead calves in 2008

November 4, 2011

Pennsylvania farmer Terry Greenwood said in an interview last week that the negative impacts his animals have been experiencing for years due to gas drilling got even worse:  of the thirteen cows remaining on his farm, not one gave birth to a live calf in 2011.

Ever since gas drilling wastewater first spilled into the pond from which his cows drink, in 2008, PA farmer Terry Greenwood has had plenty of trouble. "It's not just the people, it's the animals, too, it was the animals that started dying first," he said in an October 2011 interview. Photo: Mark Schmerling

Pennsylvania farmer Carol Johnson’s cows — the ones that were quarantined after drinking fracking flowback last year — gave birth to 11 calves this year, but eight of them were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Johnson lives in Tioga County, in north-central Pennsylvania; Greenwood lives in Washington County, in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The two farmers have never met, but they have in common an experience with cascading negative impacts on their animals, their farms, and their livelihoods due to gas drilling.

Reports about gas drilling’s escalating impacts on animals continue to come in.  Former DCNR Secretary John Quigley said in a recent interview that the forest ecosystems that will be disrupted by Marcellus Shale gas drilling “contain nearly 40% of Pennsylvania’s globally rare and threatened species.”

The topic of gas drilling’s impacts on animals — wild and domestic; pets and livestock — is too big to approach in one post, so here we will explore the story of just one farm through the eyes of one farmer, Terry Greenwood.

“It hurt me to see him go.”

In an interview last week, Greenwood said he believes the lack of any calves born this year on his farm may be due to his bull becoming sterile after being exposed to gas drilling chemicals.  He said,  “I talked to Tara [Meixsell, author of Collateral Damage: A Chronicle of Lives Devastated by Gas and Oil Development] and she said bulls went sterile” due to contaminants from heavy gas drilling in Garfield County, Colorado.

Protecting Our Waters was not able to verify this claim independently, but Barbara Arrindell, an activist with an engineering background who has been researching shale gas drilling health impacts for several years, commented, “a lot of the chemicals [used in drilling] have reproductive and mutagenic effects… There could be effects that are mutagenic but that take a while to show up.”  She also observed that gas drilling contaminants move through air as well as through water and that “different animals respond differently” to chemical exposure.  It’s difficult to know what’s going on, she said, because “there are no requirements for testing and companies aren’t required to reveal what chemicals they’re using.”

Greenwood felt forced to sell his bull a few months ago since no calves were born.  “It hurt me to see him go, but I couldn’t keep him around as a pet,” he said.  The 1800 – pound bull, who was “only nine years old, in good shape, normal-looking,” went to auction a few months ago.  “I got another bull from a place with no [gas drilling] well sites anywhere nearby,” he said.

Nothing is known about who bought the bull, and for what purpose.

Greenwood, who lives in Daisytown, PA, spoke appreciatively of his bull, “He was a real long-legged one, a limousine, a beautiful, laid-back bull,” who had successfully impregnated the cows for several years.  “I didn’t want to [get rid of him], but I had to… He’d follow you to the gate, he wouldn’t hurt you, he’d follow you to the barn,” Greenwood said.  “I would have had 19 or 20 calves this year if not for the gas drilling; I had to downsize my herd to 13 after they took my hayfields and pastures.  But I should have had at least 13 calves.  And I didn’t have one.”

Gas drilling controversy: some fracking background

High-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling is a technology new to Pennsylvania, used in earnest only since 2008.  Popularly called “fracking,” the controversial technique injects toxic chemicals mixed with water and sand deep underground into shale  to break the rock and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  This April, a Congressional review committee determined that 650 of the chemical components of fracking fluid are “known or possible human carcinogens.”

While the industry claims the chemicals are of little to no concern because they are diluted with 99% water before being injected underground, in fact many of these chemicals are deadly in the parts per million or even parts per billion.  In 2009, 17 cows in Louisiana died painfully within an hour of ingesting a fracking fluid mixture which was over 99% water.

Once the rock is fractured, methane gas returns to the surface at high pressure along with “flowback” (the waste product, also called “frack water,”) including the original fracking chemicals plus heavy metals, toxic levels of salt, and radioactive materials, along with volatile organic chemicals which occur naturally in the shale but which are hazardous when they surface.

Gas drilling wells which are shallower than the deep horizontal Marcellus wells can also be harmful, since the drilling muds, fracking chemicals, flowback (wastewater) and gas processing facilities contain toxic constituents which move through water and air and harm plants, animals, and humans.

Cows, deer and other animals are especially attracted to drinking from flowback spills, leaks and overflows due to the salty taste.  Such spills are extraordinarily common in Pennsylvania, where regulations allow this liquid toxic waste to be stored in huge open-air fracking pits which overflow easily and are lined only with plastic, which routinely tears and breaks.  Marcellus Shale gas drillers currently commit an average of eleven known (discovered and officially documented) environmental violations per day.

The Pennsylvania DEP this month instituted a policy of forbidding its inspectors to speak with reporters, saying they are “too busy.”  The DEP head, political appointee Secretary Krancer, who serves at the pleasure of Governor Corbett, put the policy in place.  Now DEP workers who have boots on the ground and direct knowledge of gas drilling violations and consequences may not share that direct knowledge with reporters.  This is in stark contrast to the level of openness and accessibility under the Rendell Administration.

Air Trouble

Scientists are increasingly concerned about chemicals from gas drilling which move through air, not just water contamination.  Theo Colborn, PhD, respected researcher and founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, said in an October 26th, 2011 conversation about gas drilling impacts, “Currently, it appears that more animals — and people — are getting sick from air than from water.”  She added, “In most cases right after drilling starts and before fracking starts” is, contrary to popular views, a critical time for health-harming contamination.

Colborn explained that throughout the various stages of gas production, “natural gas comes up [from underground] with other air pollutants including VOCs [volatile organic chemicals] and particulate matter” which fly right up into the air.  Colborn elaborated, “It has now been demonstrated that a tremendous amount of fugivite natural gas emissions is released throughout all the operations.  New health studies have revealed that very fine particulate matter can harm the respiratory and endocrine systems, including the sex organs.”

Those particulates include, Colborn said, “the PAHS (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), known carcinogens.”  The industry talks about flaring (burning vast amounts of natural gas) “as if” it’s a good thing for the environment, with typical upside down logic.  But Colborn said, “It would appear now that flaring of fugitive gas could be a source of these ultrafine particulates” which harm animal and human health.

Drilling, flaring and processing may put workers’ health at risk, but most workers now live off-site (often in barracks called “man-camps” as in Bradford County, PA) and so are not exposed to high levels of toxins 24 hours a day. Short a moratorium on drilling, comparable consideration is impossible, of course, for the animal and human residents who live full-time in “shale country.”

DEP to Greenwood:  “They dump it on the fields in West Virginia”

Terry Greenwood blames Dominion Resources Appalachian for the escalating impacts of gas drilling on his land, animals, and life.  Dominion first began drilling on his land in 2007.  Consol Energy bought natural gas properties from Dominion in March 2010.  As Greenwood puts it, “It was Dominion beating me up then, Consol beating me up now.  That’s who I’m fighting now, Consol….”

It was early 2008 when Greenwood first noticed the fracking flowback water “flowing out of the pit into the field, into the pond the cows drink from.  It was flowing brown and muddy-looking in the snowy field, that’s how I knew” what was going on, he said.

He called DEP but was shocked at their response.  “They wouldn’t test my water in that pond because they said, ‘that isn’t for human consumption.’ “

Instead of being concerned about the toxic waste flowing across his field, he said, the DEP inspector told him ” ‘they dump it on the fields in West Virginia.’ “

Among the cows which drank water from the contaminated pond, one died and ten had calves which were born dead and in some cases deformed.

When Greenwood travelled all the way to Philadelphia to participate in the Protecting Our Waters press conference here on September 7th of this year, he was too shy to speak in public.  But his neighbor, Washington County resident Ron Gulla, did speak out and held up a photo of one of Greenwood’s dead calves (to see that clip from the press conference click here on Ron Gulla).

When Greenwood reported the dead and deformed animals in 2008, Greenwood says the DEP inspector responded, ” ‘That’s a farmer’s luck, losing cattle.’ “

Dominion was told to restore his water, but instead Greenwood has been living with a water buffalo– a large container which has to be re-filled frequently to supply his cows with water — for four years.  “They haven’t restored my water and when Dominion decided to leave, in 2009, they said, ‘We’re done with you.’  That’s what they do to you, they ignore you,” he said.

Greenwood described a standoff in 2009 when Dominion told him to sign a release form, threatening to take the water buffalo away if he did not.  Greenwood says he told them, “You know what you can do with that piece of paper,” and called Channel 11 News and the newspaper.  He said Dominion then backed down.

Greenwood reported other troubles along the way.”When the gas company put the fence up, and the horse got hurt, got all tangled up, it was because they didn’t put ribbons on it [the fence]… They hooked their temporary fence into the electric fence and the horse had skin taken off his legs, it hurt him, it scared him.  I had to have the vet come right out… The horse is ok now but it took a while.  The gas company doesn’t care what they do, they don’t have respect,” Greenwood concluded.

“Look at my hayfields, all the parts they ruined,” Greenwood said in an interview on October 19th, 2011.  “They took 1 1/2 acres of good pasture, they took 6 acres of hayfields when they put the well pads and the roads in…. It hurt me big-time.  I had to downsize my herd from 19, 20 healthy cows to 13 cows…. There’s a lot more problems than people realize.  Since November 2007, it’s been four years and my son calculated the gas drilling cost us $50,000 in losses.”

But it’s not the money Greenwood is most concerned about.  He’s worried about more than his “limousine” of a bull.  “There’s been dogs died, goats died, and people sick.  You put the sick people and the animals together and you have a big problem.  There’s been more stillborn [human] babies around here too.”

Frack pit despoils land in Southwestern PA, November 2010. Photo: Mark Schmerling

Without a large-scale epidemiological study, it may be hard to confirm or deny Greenwood’s comment about human stillbirths.  What we do know, however, is that with volatile organic chemicals, particulate matter and aromatic hydrocarbons pouring into the air (no, aromatic does not mean they smell good — rather the opposite; in fact, people have been known to scream in pain and pass out from breathing the air near fracking wastewater impoundments) and with hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals being injected underground, an actual Health Impact Study is called for.

Before one more permit is issued, that is.  The logical sequence SHOULD be:  Ready (immediate moratorium).  Aim (conduct Health Impact Study along with cumulative impact studies).  Fire (issue regulations based on science, if in fact there is any consensus to proceed with gas drilling at all).

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