Dead Calves and Silences: Quarantined Cows Gave Birth to Stillborn Calves
In one of the most interesting and little-known feats of investigative reporting about Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania this year, NPR/WHYY reporter and blogger Susan Phillips tracked down the quarantined cows from Tioga County to find out what became of them. When the cows were first quarantined, it was big news, but Phillips is the first and only reporter to get an update on the cows’ health. The news is not good. Her full blog post is here.
Phillips tracked down the cows’ owners and learned that a flowback pit (called a “pond” by drilling companies but full of substances not usually found in ponds, including fracking chemicals along with heavy metals and salts from the shale) had leaked through its plastic liner and flowed into the cows’ pasture.
“When tested, the water contained chloride, iron, sulfate, barium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium and calcium. The spill killed all vegetation in an area 30 feet by 40 feet. In early May, Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture quarantined the cows, worried that the resulting beef could be tainted and make people sick. East Resources objected to the quarantine, saying it was an unnecessary step to take.”
A pro-drilling correspondent urged Phillips to investigate the aftermath. Like the industry, East Resources, which felt quarantine was unnecessary to begin with, the correspondent clearly believed follow-up would show that nothing was wrong with the cattle.
Instead, Phillips learned that of the eleven calves born this spring, eight were born dead or were so weak that they died shortly afterwards. She spoke with Carol Johnson, the animals’ owner, in late September:
“It’s abominable,” says Johnson, who along with her husband Don, has been raising cows on that land for 53 years, after taking over the farm from Don Johnson’s grandfather. “They were born dead or extremely weak. It’s highly unusual,” she said. “I might lose one or two calves a year, but I don’t lose eight out of eleven.”
It’s great to find one reporter doing her job, but disturbing that so many animals are dying and getting sick after coming into contact with fracking fluid. Only the best-documented cases tend to make their way into the news, such as the seventeen cows which died in Louisiana in 2009 after ingesting fracking fluid which Chesapeake Energy said was more than 99% water. Official documents show that to be the case; in fact the fracking chemicals were diluted at 3 gallons to 627 gallons of water. Still, seventeen cows died in agony within an hour of drinking the fluid, which leaked from a valve left open. Amy Mall’s blog was one of many which commented on this terrible incident, which came at a time when the industry still routinely claimed that fracking used only “sand and water.”
The industry’s silence, and regulators’ corresponding silences, about fracking fluid and fracking flowback’s toxic contaminants has been broken. But the multiple silences about the impacts of high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling and its impact on animal and human health are only now beginning to be broken.