Last summer I wrote about the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program for testing water. Our town’s anti-fracking activists have been using it at their homes for a while now, but around the time of my post we also began free monthly water testing for the community. We are careful to emphasize several caveats, though. The most important is that the testing is not comprehensive or EPA certified; it is not meant to be a substitute for a certified test. It measures a handful of items and is only meant to give a basic idea of water quality. Similarly, the testing would almost certainly not be admissible in a court of law; anyone with an eye on future court cases should go with an EPA certified lab.
That said, the tests are a good way to look for changes. If, say, your chlorine level is stable for six straight months and then suddenly triples, something might be up. Prior snapshots are among the crucial missing pieces in assessing the impact of fracking. At the moment there are few institutional incentives - private or public - to establish baselines prior to fracking. Industry players certainly have nothing to gain. They have gotten their favored legislation passed and are moving right along. The best result they could get would be to continue at their existing pace.1
As for the state, it is failing miserably. There are several possible reasons for that. It could be that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is woefully understaffed and simply not up to the task. It could be that decades of conservative rhetoric on how faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats are strangling free enterprise with regulations has had its intended effect: regulators are now too timid to be useful. It could be the pernicious (and logical) outcome of an erstwhile conservative project on term limits. It could just be the revolving door, aka cognitive regulatory capture.
The actual reasons don’t matter though; all that matters for citizens is that there is zero support for the kind of preliminary investigation that is a crucial prerequisite for connecting any environmental hazard with fracking. As it is, industry can simply claim the current environment is unchanged. Your water was always like that; prove us wrong.
Colorado is grappling with that very issue right now. Reporting on a proposed water testing rule aimed at discovering spills, Bruce Finley writes: “Unless such spills are near wellheads…state regulators would lack before-and-after data that could be used to assess damage to try to hold companies accountable.” While no testing at all is bad, testing at a handful of spots (selected by whom?) might be even worse if it gives the public a false sense of security. Better that people know they are completely in the dark than to be fooled into thinking an ineffectual agency is adequately monitoring the situation when it isn’t. (See here for additional reporting by Finley on before-and-after issues.)
This is the context for community water testing: essentially acting as the ODNR Volunteer Auxiliary, attempting as best we can to put together a “before” picture for residents. This past Sunday we had a steady stream of people showing up, thanks in part to a couple of larger media outlets unexpectedly picking up our press releases. (My camera did not like the lighting; it offered two options - no flash and dim, or completely washed out with flash.)
The results were recorded on a simple half-sheet printout with a carbon copy beneath (we are not a high tech operation). Residents got one copy, our group the other. Those who get the testing done regularly can use the papers to track changes, and our group is using them to slowly build a database. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than waiting for the state to take an interest in our community.
As it turns out, the community aspect is becoming important. In a semi-rural are like ours it can be difficult to get the word out. One of the people who showed up was surprised we’d been testing as long as we have because he’d only learned of it earlier in the week. In a place where there is no community center or regularly scheduled events that bring lots of people together, how do you publicize something? One way, as we are learning, is to keep active consistently over time. We test on the first Sunday of the month, and that message is slowly starting to make its way out.
Having people gather breaks up isolation. Many who are worried about fracking often feel alone because they don’t know anyone who feels similarly. This is particularly true in places where landmen have been pushing leases. Neighborhoods can - and have - become bitterly divided between those who have signed and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t might be preventing operations (and money) from flowing. Where fracking has started, those who haven’t leased often feel great resentment at having communal hazards and quality of life degradation2 visited on them against their will. One under-appreciated impact of fracking is the way it rips at the fabric of a community.
People in the middle of a situation like that might think they are the only ones going through it. Community water testing has provided a way to say to everyone who shows up: you are not alone. There are others who feel the same way you do, and who are going through the same thing you are. Come for the water testing, stay for the fellowship. While we don’t know what will ultimately happen with the former, the latter is already creating benefits.
1. Drillers sometimes do provide people with water tests, but the measure of whether those tests are a baseline comes when potential fracking impacts on water supplies are brought up. What we are seeing right now is a lot of hand waving at the initial test along with comments to the effect that the earth is a complicated place and who can say what might have caused that water to become flammable anyway? Rule of thumb: if there is no way for a testing regime to establish a link to subsequent activity, it is not a legitimate baseline.
2. Fracking makes a hell of a racket, and sound waves are not forbidden from leaving the property from which they are made. Fracking also requires a great deal of heavy truck traffic, but the wear and tear it creates on roads does not have to be compensated for by the companies that cause it. As the saying goes, privatize the profits and socialize the losses.