Fracking’s Environmental Impact: Pollution, Health Risks, and Wildlife Harm
November 5, 2023
Environmental Impact of Oil Fracking
Fracking operations create a vast web of roads, pipelines and utility corridors that industrialize wild or rural landscapes. This infrastructure strains local water supplies and disrupts habitat for wildlife.
The fracking process also produces billions of gallons of wastewater that contains chemicals added for the process. This wastewater is pumped into underground injection wells, where it can shift rocks and trigger a quake.
While we often hear about the risks of groundwater contamination, air pollution from fracking operations is also a serious concern. Many of the chemicals used in fracking can cause cancer, and benzene, a toxic petroleum hydrocarbon, is a significant contributor to ground-level ozone (smog). Diesel trucks that transport water, equipment and chemicals to and from oil well sites contribute to pollutants as do the combustion of fossil fuels on site.
In addition, induced fractures can extend into other geological formations, including drinking water aquifers, despite the fact that operators must drill thousands of feet away from such aquifers. And wastewater contaminated with chemicals is often stored in tanks and ponds or sent off for treatment, raising the risk of leaks or accidents.
In one study, researchers found that babies born within 3 kilometers, or about 2 miles, of a fracking site were at higher risk for poor health outcomes, including low birth weight and respiratory and heart problems. Researchers attributed this to a local increase in particulate matter pollution, known as PM 2.5, caused by fracking.
Fracking involves injecting millions of gallons of water into the ground. That water can contain many dangerous chemicals and contaminants including radioactive elements, methanol, polyols, borax, hydrochloric acid and more. When this chemical-laced water is pumped back up to the surface, it can contaminate rivers, streams and groundwater. The water also can contaminate wastewater treatment plants because they don’t have the specialized technologies needed to deal with these compounds.
Spills and leaks from the storage, mixing, pumping and transportation of fracking fluid and additives can also contaminate water resources. These can occur due to human error or equipment failure.
Adding to the problem is that the EPA’s labs are set up to test for chemicals found at Superfund sites, not for the complex, water soluble and exotic compounds used in fracking fluid. This means that there are few ways to know how much fracking is damaging our water and health. This is a major concern because if the environment is polluted, people become sick.
Fracking fluid mixes are often composed of chemicals that have been linked to health issues, such as some cancers and disruptions in the endocrine system. In some cases, people who live close to fracking operations have been found to be at higher risk for these problems.
The wastewater from fracking operations can also pose health issues. When it is injected underground to fracture shale, the fracking water can pick up and entrain other contaminants, including radioactive particles like radium. These contaminants can then contaminate drinking water wells, a major issue in rural communities.
Other hazards from fracking include the construction of roads and pipelines, which can destroy local landscapes and disrupt wildlife habitat. The noise, lights, and traffic from these activities can also be disruptive to people’s health. One study found that residents near a natural gas pipeline experienced increased stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disturbances.
Fracking can pollute the air and water with toxic chemicals that have been linked to health problems including childhood leukemia, heart conditions, asthma symptoms and headaches. The waste water pumped underground during fracking returns to the surface, often carrying harmful metals, radioactivity and a myriad of chemicals (many of which are trade secrets).
Spills or intentional dumping of this wastewater can have severe impacts on wildlife, such as the mass fish kill that occurred in North Dakota in 2015. In another study, scientists found that bird feathers near fracking sites contained high levels of barium and strontium, suggesting that these contaminants made their way into the birds’ bodies.
The noise and truck traffic associated with fracking disturbs animal habitat. The fracking process may also contaminate sensitive wetlands and natural areas, such as national parks and areas of outstanding beauty. This is particularly dangerous for migratory songbirds, which depend on large blocks of forest for their habitat.