Who’s Tampering With Our Water Supply? A Franciscan Response to Fracking

Jacquelyn Schramm Around the Province

As part of one of its major goals — caring for the environment — the Province’s ministries tackle problems and issues in their communities. Below, a staff member of St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J., reports on the contamination of water resulting from by hydraulic fracturing, a process for extracting natural gas from land. She also describes fracking’s effect on community relationships and its inconsistency with the Catholic Franciscan understanding of care for creation.

The author provides several suggestions for education and action. Additional information about fracking can be found in the July 13 issue of this newsletter in the article “Water = Life: A Local’s Perspective on Fracking.”

Where does your water come from? Most of us take comfort in knowing that clean water is available at the turn of a knob; however, that luxury may soon be in question. I recently attended a Franciscan retreat where I met people from Sullivan County, N.Y., 100 miles north of New York City. Their water supplies the city, reputed to be the “best” in the country. But now this water supply is at risk.

Over the past two years, many citizens of Sullivan County have been pressured to lease their land to gas companies looking to extract natural gas using a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This risky, expensive procedure involves drilling deep into the shale and pumping in a toxic, pressurized, mix of water and chemicals to force the gas to the surface.

To see the situation for myself, I accompanied a small group from Pompton Lakes, N.J., and New York City to the area.

We discovered that the economic downturn hit the towns of Sullivan County hard. Desperate farmers, tempted by high lease prices and the promise of big royalties, have leased land that has been farmed for generations.

This visit prompted me to do some research on the topic.

Fracking is not a new procedure. According to the companies involved, it is safe, economical and profitable. However, available evidence does not support these claims. Fracking in the United States has been linked to a number of problematic results, including contaminated drinking water, air pollution and explosions.

In some cases, water has been so badly contaminated that it can be lit on fire as it pours from the tap. This last phenomenon is caused by the presence of high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. Radium, another chemical present in fracking wastewater, is highly radioactive and can cause cancer and other severe health problems. According to the Food and Water Watch, both of these chemicals have been found in drinking water near fracking sites. 

According to Dr. Theo Colborn, president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and an expert on the effects of the toxic chemicals used in fracking, “Thirty to 70 percent of water injected underground can come back to the surface. (These chemicals) affect basic functions such as in-utero development, autism, diabetes, endometriosis, ADHD (and) testicular cancers.” Other potential health problems include loss of taste and smell, headaches, asthma, neuropathy (nerve damage to the peripheral nervous system), hair loss, kidney damage and cardiovascular problems.

The damage caused by fracking is not limited to water. The fumes created during the process contain many of the same toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. These chemicals can have serious effects on air quality and the health of people exposed to them.

In 2009, Wyoming failed to meet federal air quality standards for the first time in its history. One of the major causes? The presence of benzene and toluene from the 27,000 wells in the state that utilize fracking. Some Texas counties affected by fracking have a childhood asthma rate of 25 percent, more than three times the state average. Texas is home to some 93,000 wells.

Hidden Expenses
The economic benefits of fracking are also overstated. Many gas companies receive government subsidies, and in New York they are not taxed. Also not counted are the hidden costs of dealing with the health and environmental damage done by fracking.

Renee Bowers of St. Mary’s Church in Sullivan County, N.Y., asks, “Who will repair the roads from the hundreds of trucks constantly needed to transport the water for fracking? What happens to the water after it is fracked, contaminated, and rises to the surface? Who will provide clean water for the fracking communities when their water source becomes too polluted?”

Despite these problems, there is currently a push to expand fracking is the area known as the Marcellus Shale. This rock formation sits under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia and is the second largest natural gas field in the world. The gas is buried deep, however, sometimes as much as a mile, and requires extensive use of fracking to be accessed.

Fracking in the Marcellus Shale has the potential to contaminate water in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (in some cases it already is) among other places. The people of North Carolina, where two of our Franciscan parishes are located, are among those who face serious environmental perils in light of proposed changes in state legislation that would allow fracking.

Negative Effects
As a resident of New Jersey, I can see the negative consequences our state will suffer from New York and Pennsylvania’s drilling efforts. Already, pipelines stretch across our open spaces, including the Tennessee Gas, Spectra and Williams-Transco pipelines. Some of these pipelines run underneath heavily populated areas in North Jersey like West Milford. Talks are also underway with the Delaware River Basin Commission to use the Delaware River to provide the massive amounts of water required by fracking — roughly 2 to 9 million gallons per well. There are also discussions about shipping toxic wastewater to New Jersey for treatment, despite the fact that these facilities are not equipped to deal with many of the chemicals present in such water.

Fracking affects more than the environment — it impacts community relationships as well. The issue is a divisive one, pitting landowners and gas companies against people who are appalled by the effects of fracking. I do not see myself as separate from the farmers, the people and animals vulnerable to the toxic effects of polluted water and air, or from those who are just plain sick at heart to see their ancestral lands destroyed because we crave an independent energy source. With fracking, our desire to free ourselves from foreign oil has taken a bizarre turn.

Franciscan Values
Finally, fracking is not consistent with a Catholic and Franciscan understanding of creation, an understanding rooted in St. Francis of Assisi. Francis saw a world bursting with the presence of God, and he sought to honor that presence in all that he did — see, for example, his praise of Sister Water as useful, humble, precious and pure in “The Canticle of Brother Sun.”

Today, we call this attitude the sacramental nature of all created things. This means that creation is one of the ways that God manifests Godself to the world; to harm creation is to harm God and to sin in a powerful way. This is part of why water plays such a key role in the sacramental life of the Church. We take for granted that when we baptize our babies, the water that we use — a potent symbol of God’s grace — is clean rather than contaminated.

When those seeking to make a quick profit turn God’s gift of life-giving water into a toxic soup of lethal chemicals, people of faith must not remain indifferent. We, especially as Franciscans and the Franciscan-hearted, are called to ensure that the wider public debate over fracking gives serious consideration to our moral concerns.

Rather than tapping into the ingenuity of the American people by investing in clean, sustainable technologies for the future and working to eliminate the nation’s enormous amount of energy waste, our country appears to be stuck in its addiction to coal, petroleum and gas. As a result, we are squandering the precious gifts that God has given all people to share across generations. Yes, there might be some short-term economic benefits to fracking. However, when we consider the long-term impact of fracking in light of our commitment to honor God’s presence in creation, short-term thinking loses.

Our commitment to the Gospel values of life, justice and solidarity compels us to act. I hope that we, as Franciscans and the Franciscan-hearted, are up to the task.

Action Steps
The following are suggested activities that can be undertaken individually or as a group.Demand a nationwide moratorium: We support a moratorium for fracking nationwide in order to complete comprehensive environmental and cumulative impact analyses, learn from other scientific studies that are in process and accomplish necessary planning initiatives and key research efforts before drafting proposed natural gas development regulations. Those interested should complete the Sierra Club form.Contact the governor: Call Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to sign a bill to ban fracking. On June 29, the New Jersey senate and assembly voted to ban fracking in the state (S2576/A3653). We urgently await Governor Christie’s signature. Asking him to sign the bill now can be done with by filling out a simple online form View a film: Our small tour group of witnesses is sponsoring a viewing of the academy award-nominated video “Gasland” (2010) on Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s Parish Carnevale Center, Pompton Lakes, N.J., followed by a discussion. RSVPs should be emailed to jschramm@stmarys-pompton.org.

02-04-09-JPIC_Logo1— Jacquelyn Schramm is director of social justice ministry at St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes. Stephen DeWitt, OFM, and Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, member and chair of the HNP Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate, contributed to this article.