TERRY GROSS, host: As natural gas drilling expands across the country, thousands of wells are appearing in rural and suburban areas. Our guest, investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, says some neighbors of those wells are reporting serious illnesses affecting themselves as well as their livestock and pets. For years, Lustgarten has been writing about the oil and gas industries for the investigative nonprofit ProPublica. He won a 2009 George Polk Award for his stories on the impact of hydraulic fracturing or fracking - the process in which pressurized water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground to break up a rock and release natural gas.
In a recent investigative piece, Lustgarten and co-author Nicholas Kusnetz, reports that it's hard to establish a clear connection between gas drilling and health problems in part because of weak regulation of the industry. Abrahm Lustgarten talked about the issue with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's just begin by talking about a particular case. There's a woman that you write about in Western Colorado, Susan Wallace-Babb, and had a disturbing experience. What happened to her?
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, it was a late spring day in June 2005, and Susan lives in a town of Parachute, Colorado, which is right in the heart of a lot of Colorado's most intensive natural gas development. And one evening after a couple weeks of increasing sort of sensitivity and headaches and some other medical symptoms she'd been experiencing, she went out into a neighbor's field to close off an irrigation ditch, really some routine physical work. She drove her truck down the road into this field and it goes past a little bit, it goes past a gas well and a couple storage tanks for what they call condensate fuel that comes out of those tanks, and stepped out of her truck and felt woozy and immediately passed out, grabbed on to the door of the truck and kind of collapsed there for a couple minutes or so.
It began a period of very intense negative health effects for her. By the next morning she felt intense nerve pain in her legs, intense headaches, nausea, and eventually within a couple of days had skin rashes over her body, which eventually turned into legions and open sores and her health got progressively worse from that point on.
DAVIES: She believes this is the result of drilling?
LUSTGARTEN: She does now. It took some time. She originally filed a complaint with the Colorado state officials and didn't receive a reply. And it wasn't until she began talking with other residents of this part of Colorado, of Garfield County, Colorado and learning that others had similar experiences, and then she began talking more in public meetings about her own experiences and talking with doctors who had a little bit more expertise in gas fueled exposure, and she did come to believe that though it's difficult to prove, or not yet proven, that her health issues have been caused by exposure to some sort of chemical in the drilling fields.
DAVIES: She wrote a comment on the website, which carried your piece, and she pointed out there was a discussion about the effects on animals. And she said that the level of toxins in the air where she lives, she believes, caused her horses' hooves to come apart, her barn cat to urinate blood, and her chickens to die for no apparent reason. Are livestock deaths among those complaints which you've discovered in looking into this issue?
LUSTGARTEN: Very much so. And again, both unstudied, unrecorded and difficult to prove, but prevalent in each of the places that I've reported, and that means in, you know, in Texas, in Louisiana, and in Colorado and in Pennsylvania you hear similar complaints. In the part of Colorado where Susan Wallace-Babb lived, I interviewed years ago a veterinarian who described many of her clients - the owners of the animals that she treated, complaining of symptoms ranging from, I don't know if you could call that symptoms, but birth defects and stillbirths and sick or sterile animals or goats that wouldn't produce milk and so on. Animals probably are more sensitive to these sorts of environmental exposures or alleged environmental exposures, and stories of their demise in illness are extremely prevalent.
DAVIES: Well, maybe this is a point at which we could talk a little bit about how the drilling operation might produce some ill health effects. I mean we think of drilling as being an operation in which there's - you know, a drill goes deep into the ground, they get this material, it's brought up to the surface and one would think it would be kind of a contained loop, the gas goes into tanks and is sent away to produce energy. Why are there tanks of liquid? What is the process that might produce some of these health issues?
LUSTGARTEN: Well, there's a number of potential sources for contaminants which could theoretically result in some health issues, and one is these tanks. The drilling, as you described, and it happens underground, there is an injection of drilling fluids and hydraulic fracturing fluids and eventually a lot of those fluids are withdrawn and have to be disposed of, which is one potential risk area.
Along with the natural gas also there is gas which comes out in the form of liquid and that's what in this case was filling those tanks, which are called condensate tanks. Generally this is just one of many byproducts or products of the drilling process. And any of these chemicals that are hydrocarbon-based, which are essentially a fuel source that are on site, there's a risk of them being spilled or there are fumes emitting into the air or an accident as they're trucked away from site or piped away from the site. And each of those are potential points of exposure to humans.
DAVIES: Now, in your piece you describe a number of cases like hers, which are disturbing examples of people near gas drilling operations who have these in some cases very debilitating health effects and in many cases effects on livestock. How common are health complaints from gas drilling operations?
LUSTGARTEN: Well, answering that question is the fundamental problem or frustration that we ran into and that many health officials have run into. Anecdotally, I can tell you from my reporting on this issue since 2008, I hear these concerns and complaints frequently. I hear them in places that are thousands of miles apart in various states. And to me, to an untrained nonmedical professional, they sound alarmingly similar, and that's what drew us into the story. But we go to federal or state health officials or drilling officials or any official, for that matter, and ask that question, how common these are, which essentially means how many cases are there per, you know, per defined segment of the population, nobody really knows.
Nobody has systematically tracked how many health complaints there are, whether the complaints are similar, whether they can be tied to any specific chemical exposure or other specific environmental cause, and it makes it very difficult beyond just an anecdotal answer to get a handle on how widespread a problem this might be.
DAVIES: And the absence of hard information would make it hard to attach any liability, of course.
DAVIES: So what kind of information is needed to make some real scientific assessment of the risks and harm from, you know, fracking and gas drilling?
LUSTGARTEN: Well, there's a couple pieces of the puzzle. You have to establish what epidemiologists call the pathway, the exposure pathway. So you have to establish that there is a pollutant to be exposed to, that there is a risk to being exposed to that pollutant, and then finally that people actually were exposed to that pollutant. And this is the - kind of a final elusive step. And this to investigate scientifically just requires an enormous effort and a detailed study that would involve, for example, maybe a control population of people that aren't exposed to any sort of drilling and then people that are and then watching them over time and measuring exactly what air pollutants appear in the air and then testing for those in people's bloodstreams, or otherwise trying to definitively conclude that the specific contaminants from a specific source are the same ones that are making people sick.
DAVIES: All right. So to establish connections between chemical releases and health effects, you first need these two big sets of data. You need actual measurements of what the chemicals are being released into the air and water, and then you need a dataset of health effects. And I noticed you said that this was ordered in Pennsylvania but hasn't yet happened. As one of the things that we discern in reading your reading is - reading your material - is that it's largely state governments that are collecting all this information, or in some cases not collecting it. And I guess that's because the industry itself got some exemptions from federal law, right? Reminds us of that.
LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. Well, to take a step back, drilling in general is regulated mostly at the state level. There are exemptions, key exemptions from federal regulations from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which in the case of the fluids injected underground allows those chemicals not to be - the wells themselves, the hydraulics fracturing process, not to be regulated as a form of underground injection. There are similar exemptions from almost every major environmental statute, including those that would require disclosure of pollutants in the form of a toxic release inventory, exemptions under the Clean Air Act and also the Clean Water Act.
That makes it extremely difficult for federal officials to step in where they have a defined but somewhat limited role, and the rest of the drilling activity is generally regulated on a state-by-state basis. When it comes to health oversight, however, there isn't such a clear division of authority. There just hasn't been a lot of effort paid at all on either the state or the federal levels to looking at health issues as they pertain to oil and gas drilling both, or to any of these complaints that are what federal health officials would describe as less serious, for example, than cancer clusters or looking at, you know, leukemia rates in an area where there was a known chemical spill or things like that which are much easier for them to grasp onto and then study.
DAVIES: State governments, of course, have an interest in protecting their citizens, and some states have had more experience with gas drilling than others, some of them it's relatively new. How are they doing at dealing with these issues, either monitoring emissions or health effects?
LUSTGARTEN: Well, it's a little difficult to know. It makes it look like they're not doing particularly well. On the latter part of that question, the collection of data about environmental contamination states are progressing. There's been a lot more work done in the last couple of years to start, for example, taking air quality measurements, looking at what contaminants might be in polluted air both in Garfield County, Colorado, in parts of Texas, even in Pennsylvania. That step towards collecting environmental data is really important and that has really begun to take place, especially since complaints began to emerge in drilling areas over the last couple of years and over the last decade.
The second half of that, the part about health concerns is where we really ran into a wall in our reporting. We would talk to health departments, like the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and hear that as it pertained to drilling issues, all of those complaints were deferred over to the Oil and Gas Commission or the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The commission would say, well, we regulate drilling procedures. We do protect the environment but we don't really have a mechanism or the expertise to consider, you know, human health exposure or what happens from a medical standpoint. And in that gap all of these complaints seem to fall through and there isn't really a mechanism yet that we heard about for either combining efforts between those departments or perhaps creating some sort of new agency or inter-agency department that would address them, so they really kind of go unattended.
DAVIES: And so drilling regulators aren't used to thinking about health issues, the health departments have their own issues, not to mention budget constraints, so nobody really jumps on it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten from the investigative outfit ProPublica. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Abrahm Lustgarten. He is an investigative reporter for ProPublica who has been studying natural gas drilling. He has a recent piece about potential health issues from the industry.
What does, I mean the industry deals with these issues. I mean they talk to people, like they talk to you and others like you, who have, you know, been contacted by folks who've suffered health effects. What do they say about cases like Susan Wallace-Babb in Colorado?
LUSTGARTEN: To be clear, none of the companies that we called for this story agreed to comment and none would engage in a conversation. In general, the companies tend to be dismissive of individual complaints while expressing an understandable need for further research and concern for the health of individuals but really kind of shying away from any kind of connection or presumed connection with their own activities.
You won't hear the drilling industry say this isn't an issue and we don't have to go out and study this. You won't hear them say that they don't care about Susan Wallace-Babb. But you will hear them say Susan Wallace-Babb appears to not like the industry and, you know, maybe she has health issues or maybe she is annoyed with the industry and wants it to leave Garfield County, Colorado. And by the way, we need to do a whole lot more research and we support that research, but it's a, you know, it's a decade-long effort and let's just get started and not really talk about blame at this point but let's spend some time doing some research.
DAVIES: What difference would it make if the exemptions from federal law that the industry now has were removed?
LUSTGARTEN: Well, I think it would fill out the dataset, the amount of information that we have available on one half of the equation that we talked about before, and that's understanding exactly what kind of environmental pollution we are dealing with. For one example, folks at - Chris Portier - the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, said that a lack of knowledge about what specific chemicals are used in drilling has made it really difficult for health officials, his agency and local agencies, to not only understand whether residents have been exposed to these chemicals, but to even do kind of preliminary work to understand what the health effects might be from exposure to some of these chemicals. Many of them are unknown. They're unstudied. They've been invented by industry and are not yet listed by the EPA or any other agency and there's a real lack of information.
You see on the operational side a lack of disclosure of what these chemicals are. In the case of these drilling chemicals, the companies don't disclose them, claiming that they're trade secrets, that it would affect their competitive advantage with other drilling companies. But the result is that communities don't know and regulators don't know exactly what's being pumped into the ground, so health officials don't know exactly what residents who complain of health effects are actually being exposed to. That lack of disclosure isn't actually an exemption, it's just a long-standing kind of loophole or gap in the regulations, but it's one clear example of how it limits health officials.
DAVIES: Now, some states have begun to enact laws and regulations which require disclosure of some fracking chemicals, haven't they?
LUSTGARTEN: They have. Disclosure generally has improved greatly in the three years that I've been reporting on this subject. The leader is the state of Wyoming, which last year passed the first law requiring disclosure of chemicals injected underground. New York is set to follow. And there's to various degrees disclosure required with some limitations or caveats in Pennsylvania and Colorado and elsewhere.
In no case are these complete. Even in the state of Wyoming, which has the very clear and definitive law, they're allowing exemptions for certain companies and certain chemicals, depending on various circumstances as they're presented by the industry. The result is that there are still dozens, perhaps hundreds of chemicals being used in the state of Wyoming that still are not disclosed. And from a public health or a scientific perspective, all it takes is one of those chemicals to not be disclosed to make their work just a little bit harder, because it's impossible to know whether that might be the one active ingredient, so to speak, that's causing problems.
DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LUSTGARTEN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Abrahm Lustgarten spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Lustgarten reports for the nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica. You'll find links to his articles about fracking on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.