Mary Lehman, a Democrat, represents Laurel on the Prince George’s County Council. George Leventhal, a Democrat, is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council.
Maryland is nearing a turning point on energy. The moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the state, imposed in 2015 by the General Assembly, expires in 2017, leaving two clear choices. Lawmakers can allow this drilling method in our state, potentially spreading documented environmental and health dangers to half our counties, or they can adopt a permanent, statewide fracking ban.
Widespread across Pennsylvania, fracking requires millions of gallons of pressurized water, sand and volatile organic compounds, including known carcinogens, to be pumped deep underground through cement-encased wells. Forced explosions allow the water to split shale rock and release methane gas.
Recently, the county councils in Montgomery and Prince George’s voted to permanently ban drilling within our borders. As council members, we championed these local bans and encourage lawmakers in Annapolis to pass a permanent statewide ban to protect all Marylanders.
It is a common misconception that fracking would affect only western Maryland, which is home to the Marcellus shale formation that lies beneath nine states, including much of Pennsylvania, where there are more than 10,000 active fracking wells.
Beneath a third of Prince George’s is the Taylorsville natural gas basin. The Taylorsville Basin extends into Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and runs under the Potomac River and into Virginia, where Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp. leased 84,000 acres of land for potential drilling. The Culpeper Basin runs below northern Montgomery County. The Gettysburg and Delmarva Basins run below nine more counties.
So why ban? Fracking is far too risky and simply not worth the adverse impacts. Scientific studies by government, university and private researchers have long identified a causal link between fracking and increased rates of respiratory problems such as coughing and chronic nosebleeds, rashes and other skin conditions. In addition, some of the 632 known chemicals used in fracking have been linked to gastrointestinal and neurological problems, cancers and birth defects.
Findings of adverse impacts are mounting almost daily, as described in a February 2015 letter from more than 100 Maryland doctors and health professionals to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The letter urges lawmakers to take a “conservative and precautionary path” with fracking, citing overwhelming findings of risk to human health and air and water quality in peer-reviewed literature published between 2013 and 2014.
In 2016, Duke University researchers published an analysis of nearly 4,000 oil and natural gas wastewater spills in North Dakota; it found environmental impacts are both severe and lasting. Selenium was found in waters at levels as high as 35 times the federal thresholds for protecting fish and wildlife, including those that people consume.
“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a PhD student and lead author of the study. “This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites.”
Which brings us to our final concern: State regulatory agencies and local governments are not equipped to handle the environmental, human health and workplace safety complaints that accompany fracking. Pennsylvania offers a sobering case study.
In July 2014, the Pennsylvania state auditor issued a report concluding the Department of Environmental Protection was unprepared to enforce existing drinking-water regulations when the shale gas industry began growing rapidly. That same year, the department made public 248 cases of drinking water contamination directly caused by fracking, despite years of industry denial.
If Pennsylvania cannot adequately protect its more than 12 million residents from the perils of fracking, Maryland will not fare any better trying to safeguard its 6 million residents, given state staffing reductions in the Department of the Environment and increasingly lax enforcement in recent years. Eleven environmental groups in a May 5 letter assailed the department for eliminating one-third of its water quality inspectors since 2000 and for a policy that emphasizes counseling polluters rather than levying fines.
Maryland has become a national environmental leader with efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and generate clean energy. As evidence of the adverse impacts of fracking mounts, we cannot afford to permit this unnecessary and unsafe method of energy extraction. We urge our fellow elected officials, municipalities and counties to join us in calling on the General Assembly to ban fracking once and for all in 2017.