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Life around New Mexico’s gas wells: how fracking is turning the air foul

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“My daughter has asthma. She is not the only one around here, something is wrong here, our air quality shouldn’t be this way.”

Shirley “Sug” McNall is leaning up against a fence staring at a natural gas well about 40 meters from a playground behind the primary school where her daughter used to teach in Aztec, New Mexico. She believes that the gas industry and the explosion of fracking in her state is responsible for serious impacts on local air quality which are affecting people’s health.

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Her fears were boosted last year when Nasa satellites identified a methane bubble over Aztec visible from space. The bubble suggests that during drilling and production the natural gas industry is not capturing all of the gas they unlock from deep in the ground and significant amounts of this methane and other chemicals are leaking into the sky. McNall believes that other more dangerous gasses are being released too.

Northern New Mexico’s San Juan county has been the centre of intense fossil fuel extraction for decades. Here, oil, gas and coal are all pulled out of the ground. Until now, many people blamed only the coal for the bad air. That was before people like McNall and three of her friends – who call themselves the “Four Grams” – got involved and started waking people up to the danger of the 20,000 wells in their community.

These four grandmothers have been fighting for over 20 years to bring attention to the dangerous air quality in northern New Mexico.

“This is the toxic tour of hell,” she says as she drives past old wells and pits of drilling waste sludge surrounded by signs with skulls and crossbones displayed prominently.

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The tour started in 2005 when she identified the most polluted places created by the gas industry and McNall keeps showing anyone who will come and, in her words “get polluted”.

McNall’s fears that the emissions from the gas industry are potentially dangerous are backed up by scientists. Dr Detlev Helmig is a research professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His group works with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), Nasa and other groups to monitor the emissions coming from the gas industry.

His study from a Utah gas field shows that “on the order of 7-8 % of the overall produced natural gas is vented into the atmosphere,” suggesting that gas companies are releasing hundreds of millions of tons of pollutants straight into the air. Leaks in Uintah, Utah are so bad that in his words, “the air is worse than downtown LA”.

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And it is not only methane that is leaking out of these gas wells but a host of other dangerous gasses, collectively known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

They read like a devil’s cookbook of nastiness, for example benzene, which causes leukemia and other health problems ; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can cause cancer ; and toluene, which is known to cause birth defects at high doses .

Helmig and his team were asked by Colorado physician Dr John Hughes to monitor the air quality around people’s homes in nearby Weld county, Colorado – one of the most fracked rural communities in America – to identify what residents were being exposed to.

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“The levels we are seeing in that region are highly elevated over what we would have expected,” he said.

Hughes’ pilot study on people living around gas wells has been used by the Colorado state government to help create new rules that mandate wells must be at least 350 meters from people’s residences, legislation that gas companies are still fighting.

“What we found in our study is that the patients that live closest to the wells have the highest concentration of some particular volatile organic compounds in their bodies.”

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Hughes says the health impacts can be serious. “Everything from cancer to, you know, eye disorders to toxicity symptoms, just like these patients that I saw exposed to the natural gas wells.”

And the escaping methane emissions have implications beyond the communities around the fracking wells because methane’s impact on the climate is around 30 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. If these “fugitive” emissions are coming from fracked natural gas it would cast doubt on the claim that it is a greener alternative to coal with less impact on global warming.

This isn’t news to Sug Mcnall as she winds up her toxic tour at a large gas refinery with a cemetery in front of it that faces a secondary school. The air carries a foul odour that burns her nose and makes her voice scratchy.

For local people there is a dilemma because the industry provides work, she says. “We need the energy, we need the jobs, but we need our health. If we don’t have our health, all the jobs and money aren’t worth a damn.”

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guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015


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