Jeanne Simonelli’s investigation into hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, began in 2002 when she discovered that the land surrounding her farmhouse in Seagrove County, New York had been leased to a company who wanted to drill for natural gas.
“There’s a great quote in Seamus McGraw’s book, ‘The End of Country,’ that says, ‘I wouldn’t have known the difference between Marcellus Shale and Cassius Clay.’” she said. “At that time, I was the same way.”
Her house, along with the rest of the county, sits over a large deposit of shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock composed of clay and other minerals. Although she had never leased her land, it would still be affected by drilling. “In New York, they have this thing called compulsory integration, which basically means you have three choices: yes, yes or yes,” she joked.
She’s taught at Wake Forest University for 13 years, working as an applied cultural anthropologist and co-editor of the CAFE journal, but still considers New York her home. As a cultural anthropologist, her main goal was to examine not the scientific aspects, but rather the human side of the process. What she discovered shocked her.
Simonelli presented her findings to the Cape Fear chapter of the Sierra Club last Monday, in the Visitor’s Center at Halyburton Park in Wilmington. Twenty-odd people attended, one of whom was democratic candidate for the New Hanover Board of County Commissioners Rob Zapple.
The presentation opened with a YouTube video of author and environmental biologist Sandra Steingraber reading spoken word, set to a violin-heavy soundtrack of Ithaca-based band The Horse Flies. “A mile below our feet lies an ancient ocean floor,” Steingraber began in a haunting monotone. “The Marcellus Shale. Our bedrock. Our subterranean coral reef.” Images of quiet country farms flash on the screen. Tall towers—the fracking wells, illuminated like invading extraterrestrial ships—loom imposingly in the background.
Steingraber poetically describes the process as follows: “A drill bores straight down, turns sideways, and tunnels through the bedrock horizontally, like a robotic mole. Explosives are sent down the hole. Boom. A 400-million-year-old world cracks open.” The Horse Flies strummed feverishly.
To extract natural gas from shale, wells are dug into the bedrock as deep as 10,000 feet—that’s nine Empire State buildings—and are injected with a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand to break the rock apart and begin the flow of natural gas. The process only takes two or three days, and the well will flow for perhaps 15, 20, 30 years; actually, it’s uncertain just how long.
“Each well is a chimney in the earth, venting toxic gases into our communities,” Steingraber concluded. “Each well requires an access road, a five-acre well pad, a spider’s web of pipeline, 50,000 gallons of chemicals, 4 to 9 million gallons of water, and at least a thousand diesel truck trips. Between 34,000 and 90,000 wells are envisioned for upstate New York. Do the math.” The video ended with a final chord, and afterwards, stunned silence from the audience.
“Fracking is primarily a clean-water issue,” Simonelli said, after we picked up our jaws from the floor. The process runs the risk of contaminating drinking water in the aquifer or private wells with natural gas or the chemicals used during the extraction process. These chemicals used are kept secret with non-disclosure agreements, and it’s gotten to the point where doctors in Pennsylvania, one of the first states to frack, are not allowed to reveal what they’ve treated patients for. The list of speculated chemicals used is over 100 substances long.
Once the wells are tapped, the injected water and chemical mixture flows back up into uncovered containment ponds, lined with only a thin barrier of plastic. “If anyone has ever played in a kid’s swimming pool, you know how easily plastic breaks,” Simonelli said. In New York, the minimum distance required by the state for the location of a pond is 250 feet from a house, 500 feet from a well, and a meager 150 feet from a public school. Last year, Hurricane Irene flooded ponds in Pennsylvania, and the toxic sludge was swept over the surrounding farmland. Fish kills were reported in nearby streams.
Simonelli says one way to combat this is through zoning. “In Pennsylvania, there was not much planning, so they’ve had to be more reactive as opposed to proactive in dealing with these issues,” Simonelli says. Several communities in New York have moratoriums and bans against fracking in certain areas. One community, Middlefield, was sued by the gas company to overturn the zoning ban, but the Natural Resources Defense Council provided support and the gas company lost the suit.
Prior to July of this year, the state of North Carolina had strict regulations that effectively banned fracking. State Senate Bill 820 overturned this legislation and legalized it. One potential fracking site lies in Stokes County. Land has already been leased next to Sanford, a community which lies at the headwaters of the Cape Fear River that flows beside Wilmington. If fracked, toxic chemicals could potentially affect the water supply of 2.4 million people. A pipeline would also have to be built, running from Sanford to the Sutton power plant in Wilmington, which has recently announced a switch to natural gas. “[Natural gas] may be cleaner than coal as we do it now,” Simonelli said, “but it’s not clean.”