By Michele Morrone
Cities are often the focus of Environmental Justice (EJ) discussions, but the social movement began in rural Warren County, North Carolina in the early 1970s when residents resisted the siting of a hazardous waste landfill. Cities may appear different from rural villages and towns, but people living in poverty comprise EJ communities regardless of the scenery.
A huge region encompassing 420 counties in 13 states, Appalachia is home to some of the most impoverished people in the United States. Appalachia’s natural resources have been both a blessing and a curse for the residents. Scenic mountains and dense forests contribute to the region’s great beauty, but the removal of coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as metals like copper and iron ore, has left behind a legacy of environmental damage. For more than one hundred years, coal was the most sought after natural resource in the region, however coal’s sustainability as a driver of the Appalachian economy has steadily waned and mines are now closing and mining jobs are disappearing. Fracking is quickly taking its place.
There are many reasons for the decline of coal in Appalachia and one is the increase in an unconventional gas and oil drilling method known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Vertical hydraulic fracturing is not a new method for extracting oil and natural gas from underground geological formations (i.e. shale). What is generating a lot of excitement, interest, and debate is the ability to turn the drill bit horizontally to extract more resource from a single well. Although referred to as “fracking,” the entire process involves extensive site preparation, drilling, use of massive quantities of water and some chemicals, and the generation of significant amounts of liquid waste typically disposed of in underground injection wells.
Numerous uncertainties exist about the risks of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, but in the context of environmental justice, the question of sustainability is critical. When the decision to mine for coal was made so many years ago, the concept of sustainability was not part of the public vernacular. Coal mines seemed like bottomless pits of energy resources and it was unthinkable that we might need an alternative one day.
Today, sustainability is viewed as comprising three spheres of economy, environment, and society. When we use sustainability to guide environmental policy, we are also addressing environmental justice. From this perspective, fracking in Appalachia has the potential to add to the burdens that are at the heart of environmental injustice in the region. A map of areas in the U.S. that have the greatest potential for shale development shows that Appalachia, including eastern Ohio, will be a major player in fracking.
Economy, environment, society, and justice
One of the main arguments in favor of fracking is that it will create jobs that are especially needed in poor communities. In 2011, when Ohio public officials spoke of the economic impact from shale, they argued that it would attract more than 200,000 jobs to the state. However, as of June 2013, the number of new jobs specifically linked to shale exploration has been “disappointing.” Many of the new jobs are temporary and once wells are in production the need for workers decreases.
For local economies, the sustainability of fracking is dubious. There are documented increases in local tax revenues, some businesses are improving their bottom lines, and individual landowners are reaping the benefits from leases and royalties. However, the strain on housing in many of the most active drilling counties suggests that local people are not a key constituent of the workforce. Without economic planning, there is a real risk that the drilling boom will eventually result in a bust, not unlike the history of coal. When we started mining coal in the U.S., there was no evidence that there would be long-term environmental consequences but today many rural communities are paying for yesterday’s quest for cheap energy.
Coal mining left a legacy of environmental destruction in Appalachia consisting of deforested hillsides, abandoned mines, acid mine drainage, and waste (gob) piles that dot the landscape. When it comes to fracking, one of the major concerns is the potential ground water contamination from both drilling and waste disposal. Like coal mining in the early 1900s, fracking is proceeding rapidly and in the absence of evidence and long-term scientific studies, “everyone who draws water from an aquifer above or in the vicinity of fracking activity is a guinea pig.”
The social sphere of sustainability shines the brightest light on environmental justice. Like coal mining, a great deal of fracking is concentrated in rural Appalachian counties where the geology supports oil and natural gas. Appalachian people already suffer from health disparities related to environmental exposures, lifestyle choices, and lack of access to health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that health disparities are not “a ‘natural’ phenomenon,” but are created by a “toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics.”
There are multiple policy challenges related to fracking, but one is to address sustainability and the economic, environmental, and social impacts of hydraulic fracturing so that it does not exacerbate health disparities and environmental injustice throughout rural America.
Michele Morrone is a Professor of Environmental Health Science at Ohio University and a Research Fellow in the Appalachian Rural Health Institute, in Athens, Ohio. She is the author of two books, numerous articles, and she co-edited the book Mountains of Injustice: Case Studies in Environmental Equity (2012). She was the 2012 Fulbright Research Chair in Science and the Environment at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.