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Poisoning the Aquifers: The Real Cost of Fracking's Impassioned Case for Change

By Anna Morrow


LOST HILLS, CA : The sun rises over an oil field in California, where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated aquifers in a state damaged by drought. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

During summers in California’s Central Valley, an inland area that spans the length of the state from Bakersfield to Stockton, it’s not uncommon to hear a local rejoice when “it will only be 100 degrees today!” The sun is relentless and its heat is stifling, especially during a drought, and especially for the thousands of farm workers who are responsible for nearly all of California’s and much of the United States’ agriculture.

Now, a report from the University of California, Davis explains that if the drought continues for two or more years, Central Valley farmers will be forced to increasingly rely on groundwater reserves, some of which, we are now learning, may have been polluted by fracking wastewater.

Growing up in the heart of the Central Valley, whose claim-to-fame is being the “Gateway to Yosemite,” my preferred remedy for the afternoon summer heat was to frolic in the lawn sprinklers for hours on end, quench my thirst with gulps of water from the garden hose, engineer makeshift slip-and-slides, and bike to the farmer’s fruit stand down the road.

The days of moderately worry-free water consumption are long gone as California rightfully encourages reductions in residential water use during this debilitating drought. What I never imagined is that my trips to the farm stand might become a relic of the past not only due to a lack of water, but to a lack of safe water.

BAMBERGER-RealCostFrackingMichelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald chronicle these dangers and other alarming consequences from contamination at fracking sites in their meticulously researched new book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food. Through a series of interviews, we learn of families who have spent a lifetime building memories in homes that were rendered hazardous to their health and virtually unlivable soon after fracking began in their areas of Pennsylvania and New York. When oil and gas companies move in, property values plummet and many of those interviewed by Bamberger are now too poor to relocate. They are faced with walking away from their homes with nothing, or staying and risking serious, sometimes life-threatening, health issues believed to be caused by fracking—immunosuppression, nosebleeds, vomiting, rashes, burning eyes, loss of smell, and cancer, to name a few. They feel helpless in the fight against big oil companies with pockets as deep as the aquifers they are polluting.

Bamberger, a veterinarian, is particularly concerned with the effects on animals from contact with fracking wastewater. One family’s beloved Lab mix, Rex, suddenly died two days after fracking wastewater spilled on their property. Many farmers have been stripped of their livelihood as their previously healthy and once productive livestock die in large numbers or become infertile. Notably, in Louisiana, seventeen cows on the same farm all died within an hour of being exposed to wastewater fluid. A small farm owner in Pennsylvania, exasperated from helplessly watching her animals become sick and die after exposure to fracking wastewater, lamented over what the drilling companies have taken from her: “I’ve spent forty years of my life to be able to get this, to be able to buy this property and farm this land, to have the American dream. And then the corporations came in and took it away from us overnight.”

It’s at once sobering and unfathomable to think that California’s drought might now be just part of its water problem. Bamberger and Oswald encourage their readers to consider the potential repercussions of fracking wastewater being used in farming and our food supply:

Drilling fluids, fracturing fluids, wastewater, and air contaminants released during drilling operations contain chemicals that are human carcinogens or are suspected human carcinogens and that consequently, crops from exposed fields; milk, meat, and eggs from exposed animals; and fish from exposed waterways should not be made available for human consumption.

This warning is dire for California, which recently announced an emergency shut-down of eleven aquifers that have been intentionally polluted for years through the injection of fracking wastewater. An additional 100 aquifers are simultaneously under review. According to ProPublica, these aquifers, not currently protected by environmental law, may become important sources of water as new technology allows for less costly extraction and treatment for consumption. It is suspected that these contaminated aquifers have been leaking fracking waste and toxic chemicals into fresh water aquifers that are protected by law, and may be used as drinking water.

It is imperative that this groundwater is replenished and protected from additional fracking waste. Unfortunately, according to the UC Davis report, California is currently the only state without a basis for groundwater management.

The Real Cost of Fracking is ultimately a call to action for concerned citizens and lawmakers, and we should all pay attention. Our environment, water supply, health, food, and local summertime fruit stands may depend on it.


Anna Morrow has a BA in English and Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is a soon-to-be graduate of the Emerson College Publishing and Writing MA program. She is currently the marketing intern at Beacon Press.