Journalism in the Public Interest

16 Cattle Drop Dead Near Mysterious Fluid at Gas Drilling Site

Jim Hudelson/The (Shreveport) Times

ProPublica has been reporting for months about how natural gas drilling is affecting the environment, but of all the causes for concern we've reported, here's a doozy.

Sixteen cattle dropped dead in a northwestern Louisiana field this week after apparently drinking from a mysterious fluid adjacent to a natural gas drilling rig, according to Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality and a report in the Shreveport Times. At least one worker told the newspaper that the fluids, which witnesses described as green and spewing into the air near the drilling derrick, were used for a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing. But the company, Chesapeake Energy, has not identified exactly what chemicals are in those fluids and is insisting to state regulators that no spill occurred.

The problem is that both Chesapeake and its contractor doing the work Schlumberger, say that a lot of these fluids are proprietary, said Otis Randle, regional manager for the DEQ. "It can be an obstacle, but we try to be fair to everybody," he said. "We try to remember that the products they use are theirs and they need them to make a living."

Hydraulic fracturing -- a process in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground at high pressure to break rock and release natural gas -- is controversial because of the secrecy surrounding the fluids and because the process is exempted from protections of the Safe Drinking Water Act and thus from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress is currently considering legislation to address these issues out of concern that fracturing, and the fluids and waste that are part of the process, may be contaminating drinking water in several states.

Hydraulic fracturing has made drilling more efficient and economical and has helped make vast new reserves of natural gas available across the country, including in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Louisiana.

Scientists at the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have told ProPublica that it's difficult for them to assess the environmental risks posed by hydraulic fracturing chemicals because the companies that use them won't release the exact names and amounts of the chemicals. The energy service companies, including Halliburton and Schlumberger, say that disclosing that information would put them at a competitive disadvantage, and they insist the fluids are safe. Some information about the materials is made available through Material Safety Data Sheets, which can provide cursory medical advice for workers exposed to the chemicals.

The drilling companies have given Louisiana's DEQ a large stack of these sheets. Randle said they contain some helpful information, but it will take the agency some time to weed through them. In the field where the cattle died on Tuesday, the DEQ reports finding a white milky substance on the ground, with cattle tracks leading away to the dead animals. Randle said he is almost certain the substance is a drill fluid or fracturing fluid.

A Chesapeake Energy spokesman told ProPublica that the company is cooperating with the state and is waiting for test results to determine how the cows died. Schlumberger did not immediately return calls for comment. If we hear from the company, we'll let you know.

So glad you are covering this ongoing issue.  It’s got some upstate local residents in NYS upset, rightly so.  On WBAI this week, Hugh Hamilton “Talk Back” had a segment, with guest as a result of a caller who had mentioned it in a few call-ins over time. Serious. For people, too.

Thank you so much for your excellent, ongoing coverage of this issue. I live in upstate NY, above the Marcellus Shale, and I am extremely concerned about the potential negative effects of shale gas drilling.

If it turns out that these poor animals were poisoned by some drilling-related substance, then can we look forward to more animal poisonings here in NY? These fluids can enter the environment via spills. They can leak from storage containers at the drilling site. And contaminated wastewater generated by the drilling process is often stored in open pits at the drilling sites. It does not take much imagination to come up with a variety of ways in which these fluids could be ingested by animals. The harm to the animals is disturbing in and of itself, but suppose a dairy cow or a meat animal ingests something that does not produce immediate symptoms in the animal, but which would be harmful to humans drinking the milk or eating the meat?

To further complicate the matter, as the article notes, the gas industry is reluctant to disclose exactly what substances they are using—a situation that greatly complicates and delays the diagnosis of any problems that may be due to the ingestion of drilling fluids.

This is just one more problem in a long, long list of problems associated with this very poorly regulated industry.

No industry should be allowed to “make a living” at the expense of a VITAL resource like water.

Thank you Pro Publica!

Oil and gas has broad exemptions from many of our federal environmental laws.

If you watched 60 minutes last Sunday, you saw how they have polluted the Amazon and you heard the reporter say that it can’t happen here. Actually the same EXACT thing is happening all over America.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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