Scientific Data Analysis-RS

“Get the Frack Out”: Environmental and Economic Implications of Fracking in Bradford County, PA.

            The specific focus of my project is on the implementation of hydraulic fracturing along the Marcellus Shale region in Bradford County, PA, which has six well operators, 765 violations, and 1,097 wells. Companies, such as Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, continue to violate local regulations, and more areas within the county are being utilized as fracking sites since its residents are mostly low-income. Using the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, I highlighted a particular zone of interest on a map of the United States and retrieved both demographic and environmental information related to that particular site, as well as 2010 Census information. Using the option to draw a site and altering the base map to the Streets (Night) option, I was able to outline my site along the border of Bradford County (Figure 1).

Figure 1: EJSCREEN Generated Map of Bradford County

Through this data, I intend to understand who was affected by the practice (based on demographic data), how they were affected (based on environmental data), and how these data together demonstrate that these residents are being targeted for the utilization of hydraulic fracturing on their land.

Figure 2: Demographic Indicators for Bradford County, PA

  The demographic indicators and information garnered are percentile rankings in the United States. This information provides an insight into who is directly impacted by the practice of fracking in the county (Figure 2). The population residing in Bradford County is mostly white, with the minority population resting at the ninth percentile (in other words, 91% of the rest of the United States has a higher percentage of minorities in the population). Here, percent minority is calculated as a fraction of the entire population, and minority is defined as any ethnicity excluding Non-Hispanic White Alone. For more information about the exact definitions of each of these terms, and how some of these numbers are calculated, please reference this glossary of EJSCREEN terms: https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen/glossary-ejscreen-terms.

Moreover, the residents of the county are mostly low-income as well, ranking at the fifty-seventh percentile. Similarly, most of the residents have attained less than a high school education, ranking at the fifty-fifth percentile. According to 2010 Census information (Figures 3 & 4), Bradford County has a population density of 57 (population per square mile), with approximately seventy-three percent of residents owning their own houses and land, as opposed to renting it; together, the low population density and the high percentage of land ownership confirm that this county is relatively rural, and perhaps very much rooted in agriculture.

Figure 3: Population Information from the US Census Bureau

Figure 4: Housing Information from the US Census Bureau

The most glaring piece of demographic information is that this county is ranked at the seventy-sixth percentile for the population of individuals who are over the age of sixty-four. In summary, most of the affected residents are white, rural, low-income, not college educated, and over the age of sixty-four.

The environmental indicators here, again measured as percentile ranking in the United States, should be associated with those environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, namely the contamination of ground and surface water, general air pollution, emissions of methane, and the migration of chemicals and other gases to the surface (Figure 5). The data does suggest this association.

Figure 5: Environmental Indicators for Bradford County, PA

Firstly, the percentile for particulate matter levels in the air, measured in micro-grams per cubic meter, was 22. Generally, particulate matter refers to liquid and solid particles suspended in the air; more specifically, PM 2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. The percentile does seem low initially; however, one would expect this number to be much lower in a rural area, since more rural areas tend to have less levels of air pollution than urban areas.

Bradford County is also in the forty-eighth percentile for proximity to hazardous waste management facilities, which is, once again, a high percentile for a rural area. Perhaps this high count of Treatment Storage and Disposal Facilities (TSDF) is necessary to cope with the waste produced by hydraulic fracturing, such as fracking fluids. The increased number of these facilities, in simple statistical terms, increases the exposure of residents to the disposal and storage of hazardous wastes.  The most revealing piece of environmental data is that Bradford County is in the eighty-second percentile for Wastewater Discharge Indicator. This number refers to the concentration of toxics in streams within five hundred meters divided by distance, in kilometers. The wastewater produced by fracking is laced with chemicals and radionuclides, and although it is initially pumped underground, it eventually flows out of the well as wastewater.

            These demographic and environmental factors coalesce in a way that creates a narrative of hydraulic fracturing in Bradford County, PA. Based on the aforementioned demographic data, most of the residents of the county are undereducated;, this factor could imply that residents might not be fully aware of the environmental and subsequent health ramifications that the process of hydraulic fracturing can have. For example, a seemingly invisible element, such as high particulate matter, may not even register as a potential health concern related to fracking until something more tangible, such as toxic wastewater discharge, makes itself known first. Moreover, these individuals are mostly elderly, have lower incomes, and tend to rely on agricultural output for that income. In these cases, knowledge of these environmental ramifications could exist, but cannot be addressed, especially since these particularly vulnerable individuals might not have the requisite means to relocate, which would require selling their sole source of income, or to seek legal recourse.  In a sense, their vulnerabilities are exacerbated.

            Companies, then, such as Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, specifically target these individuals with the notion that wells be drilled into their properties. They are promised high amounts of money to lease their land. Based on that analyzed demographic data, there is no doubt that this initial offer would be enticing: a potential influx of much needed income could serve to fortify their small farms. However, they usually receive a much smaller amount (or are actually forced to pay the companies, as seen in the Image Analysis of “PA Royalty Ripoff). All the while, they face the health issues that come as a result of certain inevitabilities, such as breathing in air that contains such a high concentration of particulate matter, as well as dealing with violations of fracking policy that manifest themselves through hazardous waste leaks from waste management companies and wastewater discharges. Their health, as well as the health of any of the animals they may have on their farms, begin to deteriorate. Fully contaminated farms end up going for sale at a dramatically reduced price, allowing companies to purchase land cheaply to build even more wells. 

            Some examples of environmental inequality in the United States, as a whole, can stem from the opportunity of those in power to prey on a vulnerable population for monetary gain. Age and class are major demographic factors that are especially important in this consideration, as seen in Bradford County. Moreover, rural communities in particular as targeted in this sense, as many small farms across the United States face similar decisions and consequences today.

Keywords: Class, Toxics, Water, Soil, Pollution, Energy