Testimony by Dr. Sandra Steingraber on Illinois Fracking Regulatory Bill

May 21st, 2013

Distinguished legislators and fellow Illinoisans,


Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you about my concerns about the public health consequences of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracking in Illinois. My name is Sandra Steingraber. I am a PhD biologist and Distinguished Scholar at Ithaca College. My field of study is environmental health, and for the past two years I have been researching the impact of fracking on the environment and on human health. In that capacity, I am a founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York and have presented invited testimony about fracking on many occasions in the New York statehouse in Albany, as well as in Washington, DC and before the European Union Parliament.


Although I live in New York now, I spent the first half of my life in downstate Illinois. I was born in Champagne, raised in Pekin, graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, and pursued a master’s degree at Illinois State University.


New York and Illinois have something in common: each state is in the cross hairs of an industry that seeks to blast apart its bedrock via a brutal technology called high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing—fracking—which uses chemical-laced water as a sledgehammer to free bubbles of methane—natural gas—trapped within deep layers of shale.


This is my message to you: follow our example in New York and declare a moratorium on fracking until you have thoroughly studied the long-term costs to human health and environment. Shale gas extraction via fracking is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent enterprise that turns communities into industrial zones. Until you understand and quantify these costs, you cannot claim that fracking Illinois will provide net economic benefits, nor can you claim that the current set of proposed regulations—which were promulgated behind closed doors without the involvement of Illinois’ public health community—are sufficiently protective. Indeed, with this same argument we chose in New York to reject our proposed draft regulations, which were far stricter than yours.


Let me say that again, and my words here contain a special message for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan who brokered the deal that produced this piece of legislation: The backers of this bill claim that it contains the strongest regulations for fracking in the nation. That is nonsense. New York State promulgated a far stricter set of rules that prohibited drilling on state lands and set aside certain watersheds as off-limits to fracking altogether—and still we rejected them.


Moreover, New York State’s regulations were subject to numerous public hearings and comment periods. Hundreds of scientists provided testimony, as did thousands of business owners, farmers, faith leaders and ordinary citizens. And thrice, over nearly five years of deliberation, we’ve sent a deeply flawed environmental impact statement back to the drawing board.


Because of that democratic process, New Yorkers now know a lot about fracking. The more we find out, the deeper our objections.


And that’s because, when you look under fracking’s hood, you see terrifying problems. Behind the hard sell and soothing promises, this contraption is unsafe at any speed.


Here’s what we’ve learned in New York: Regulations cannot prevent well casings from leaking as they age and fail. Or keep methane from migrating through underground faults. Or eliminate the 24/7 noise pollution from drilling. Regulations cannot keep benzene from rising out of boreholes. There is no good storage solution for radioactive wastewater. And the jobs fracking provides are temporary and toxic.


Thus, Attorney General Madigan needs to know that should this bill pass and become law, she will be held personally responsible for every contaminated well, every fiery explosion, every horrific accident, and every sick child.


More fundamentally, scientists haven’t yet identified all the chemicals released from drilling and fracking operations. Clearly, if you don’t know what impacts need mitigating, there is no way of judging if any given set of regulations sufficiently mitigates them.


It took us New Yorkers several years to sift through the science and the industry claims—and we’re not done yet.


Meanwhile, the Land of Lincoln was afforded no chance for democratic participation. Instead, a few compromise-oriented environmental organizations sat behind closed doors with industry reps and, under the false premise that fracking is inevitable, banged out a set of rules, called them strict, and proclaimed the cooperative process that produced them a model for the nation.


Cooperation is one word for it. Appeasement and capitulation would be two others.


A state suffering from economic desperation, as Illinois is, is also a state unable to fully fund the regulatory agencies needed to monitor thousands of wellpads and all the attendant infrastructure and enforce the regulations. No matter how good or bad these regulations might be, in the absence of funding and personnel for enforcement, the result will be unacceptably low levels of environmental and public health protection.


Most fundamentally, it is wrong to draft and endorse unenforceable regulations in the absence of a comprehensive environmental impact study or health impact assessment of any kind. The ongoing disaster in Pennsylvania shows us that it is impossible to enact protections and better regulations once fracking is started and the world’s largest industry wields its influence in state and local governments. Indeed in Pennsylvania, the staple law passed after drilling started was a gag order on doctors treating victims of fracking.


Indeed, the EPA Inspector General, in conceding that EPA has limited data on the health risks of fracking, warned that states may, in the face of so many unknowns, design “incorrect or ineffective” regulations. And yet, that is exactly what Illinois is doing. And it is doing so under guidance of NRDC.


In the context of a moratorium, a thorough investigation of fracking’s impact on human health could be conducted. Such an investigation could help answer three most fundamental questions about hydraulic fracturing in Illinois: Will fracking sicken and kill more people than it employs? Will the sick and dying have any recourse—other than fleeing their homes and jobs—to protect themselves? And what is the economic cost of that morbidity and mortality?


Case studies and reports from other states provide credible evidence of public health risks in communities located near drilling and fracking operations. Small increases in mortality and disease rates in a state as densely populated as Illinois would have much more widespread consequences and carry much bigger costs than equivalent effects in, for example, western Wyoming or eastern Utah. These consequences must be studied before regulations are promulgated. Failure to do so is unethical, unscientific, and undemocratic.


Regulated fracking in the absence of an environmental or human health assessment is unethical because it compels the citizens of Illinois to serve as unconsenting subjects in a vast human experiment.


It is unscientific because it is illogical to claim that any set of regulations can sufficiently protect human health when you haven’t yet identified what the health threats are, what the routes of exposure are, and what the medical costs of those exposures will be.


It’s undemocratic because the very people who are being asked to assume the unknown risks to their health have had no seat at the table and no voice in crafting the rules that they will be forced to live under.


I am convinced that a thorough, well-designed health study, conducted in good faith and inclusive of long-term, cumulative impacts, will reveal many problems. They will be expensive problems, and not all of them will be capable of mitigation through technological fixes. This is an easy prediction to make. Shale gas extraction via horizontal hydraulic fracking is an inherently dangerous activity. Fracking turns solid bedrock into broken shards whose cracks become potential pathways for contamination, some of it radioactive. Broken shale is not reparable by any known technology. Fracking relies upon and releases from the earth large amounts of greenhouse gases and inherently toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, while also industrializing the natural and built environments of human communities.


Risks to public health from fracking arise from every stage of the gas extraction process—from the clearing of land for well pads to the disposal of toxic wastewater to the radon accompanying the gas that travels through pipelines to people’s homes—and may affect not only disease rates but also the fundamental conditions for human health. For example, with the onset of drilling and fracking operations, a community may experience dramatic increases in noise pollution, light at night, crime, and truck traffic, along with decreases in the availability of locally grown food, affordable housing, and recreational green space for exercise. All of these changes have health consequences. Traffic-related noise pollution alone, for example, demonstrably raises the risk of heart attack and high blood pressure and cognitive deficits in children. Those who are harmed by these activities are rarely those who have chosen to pursue them and who have received any benefit.


A moratorium would also allow you time to study occupational health threats to the workers in the industry. These include, but are not limited to, head injuries, traffic accidents, blunt trauma, silica dust exposure and chemical exposures. Oil and gas industry workers have an on-the-job fatality rate seven times that of other industries; silica dust exposure is definitively linked to silicosis and lung cancer. With jobs creation as a central argument for the approval of fracking in Illinois, your need to understand the health and disability risks that come with these jobs.


I’ll close with lines of poetry from Illinois’ noble poet laureate, John Knoefple. The poem is titled, “Confluence,” and is set on the banks of the Sangamon River: The world in peace / This laced temple of darkening colors / It could not have been made for shambles.


With fracking, shambles is what you get. Illinois, you are worth so much more than the wisps and puddles of gas and oil inside your bedrock