Western PA Cows in Trouble, Too

Livestock Falling Ill in Fracking Regions, Raising Concerns About Food

By Elizabeth Royte
Beaver County Blue via Food and Environment Reporting Network

In the midst of the domestic energy boom, livestock on farms near oil-and-gas drilling operations nationwide have been quietly falling sick and dying.

While scientists have yet to isolate cause and effect, many suspect chemicals used in drilling and hydrofracking (or “fracking”) operations are poisoning animals through the air, water, or soil.

Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca, New York, veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first and only peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals.

The authors compiled 24 case studies of farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive, and acute gastrointestinal problems after being exposed—either accidentally or incidentally—to fracking chemicals in the water or air. The article, published in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, describes how scores of animals died over the course of several years.

The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning.

Exposed livestock “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water, and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”

In Louisiana, 17 cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid, which is injected miles underground to crack open and release pockets of natural gas. The most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.

In New Mexico, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed near well pads found petroleum residues in 54 of 56 animals.

In northern central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately 70 cows died, and the remainder produced only 11 calves, of which three survived.

In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing wastewater pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: Half their calves were born dead. Dairy operators in shale-gas areas of Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Texas have also reported the death of goats.

Drilling and fracking a single well requires up to 7 million gallons of water, plus an additional 400,000 gallons of additives, including lubricants, biocides, scale- and rust-inhibitors, solvents, foaming and defoaming agents, emulsifiers and de-emulsifiers, stabilizers and breakers. At almost every stage of developing and operating an oil or gas well, chemicals and compounds can be introduced into the environment. Cows Lose Weight, Die

After drilling began just over the property line of Jacki Schilke’s ranch in the northwestern corner of North Dakota, in the heart of the state’s booming Bakken Shale, cattle began limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves, and they lost from 60 to 80 pounds in a week and their tails mysteriously dropped off. Eventually, five animals died, according to Schilke.

Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene, and xylene—and well testing revealed high levels of sulfates, chromium, chloride, and strontium. Schilke says she moved her herd upwind and upstream from the nearest drill pad.

Although her steers currently look healthy, she says, “I won’t sell them because I don’t know if they’re okay.”

Nor does anyone else. Energy companies are exempt from key provisions of environmental laws, which makes it difficult for scientists and citizens to learn precisely what is in drilling and fracking fluids or airborne emissions. And without information on the interactions between these chemicals and pre-existing environmental chemicals, veterinarians can’t hope to pinpoint an animal’s cause of death.

The risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse, since different plants and animals take up different chemicals through different pathways.

“There are a variety of organic compounds, metals, and radioactive material [released in the fracking process] that are of human health concern when livestock meat or milk is ingested,” Motoko Mukai, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says. These “compounds accumulate in the fat and are excreted into milk. Some compounds are persistent and do not get metabolized easily.”

Veterinarians don’t know how long chemicals may remain in animals, farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of contamination before middlemen purchase them, and the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t looking for these compounds in carcasses at slaughterhouses.

Documenting the scope of the problem is difficult: Scientists lack funding to study the matter, and rural vets remain silent for fear of retaliation. Farmers who receive royalty checks from energy companies are reluctant to complain, and those who have settled with gas companies following a spill or other accident are forbidden to disclose information to investigators. Some food producers would rather not know what’s going on, say ranchers and veterinarians.

Schilke ranch cow that has lost its tail, one of many ailments found in cattle following hydrofracturing of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota (Photo by Jacki Schilke)

“It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” rancher Dennis Bauste of Trenton Lake, North Dakota, says. “I’m gonna sell my calves and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipe-out, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.”

Fracking proponents criticize Bamberger and Oswald’s paper as a political, not a scientific, document. “They used anonymous sources, so no one can verify what they said,” says Steve Everley, of the industry lobby group Energy In Depth. The authors didn’t provide a scientific assessment of impacts—testing what specific chemicals might do to cows that ingest them, for example—so treating their findings as scientific, he continues, “is laughable at best, and dangerous for public debate at worst.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the main lobbying group for ranchers, takes no position on fracking, but some ranchers are beginning to speak out. “These are industry-supporting conservatives, not radicals,” says Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are the experts in their animals’ health, and they are very concerned.”

Last March, Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for studies of oil and gas production’s impact on food plants and animals. None are currently planned by the federal government.

As Local Food Booms, Consumers Wary But consumers intensely interested in where and how their food is grown aren’t waiting for hard data to tell them their meat or milk is safe. For them, the perception of pollution is just as bad as the real thing.

“My beef sells itself. My farm is pristine. But a restaurant doesn’t want to visit and see a drill pad on the horizon,” Ken Jaffe, who raises grass-fed cattle in upstate New York, says. Only recently has the local foods movement, in regions across the country, reached a critical mass. But the movement’s lofty ideals could turn out to be, in shale gas areas, a double-edged sword.

Should the moratorium on hydrofracking in New York State be lifted, the 16,200-member Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, will no longer buy food from farms anywhere near drilling operations—a $4 million loss for upstate producers. The livelihood of organic goat farmer Steven Cleghorn, who’s surrounded by active wells in Pennsylvania, is already in jeopardy.

“People at the farmers market are starting to ask exactly where this food comes from,” he says.

This report was produced by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent investigative journalism non-profit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental health. A longer version of this story appears on TheNation.com

19 thoughts on “Western PA Cows in Trouble, Too”

    1. Tim Solobay believes people who have contaminated wells, contaminated the wells themselves to get money from the drillers. He is contemplating running for governor. I suggests he runs out of PA and fast.

  1. Maybe have a dinner for the legislators and serve them up some prime rib from the sick animals and nice big glasses of cold brown water!!

  2. This is sickening ! The oil companies know that Fracking causes many problems , including poisoning well water and off -gassing . They are doing it anyway.because it makes them a huge profit.! Like the tobacco companies, who knowingly make a product that kills the user, they have the money and the technology to extract natural gas safely . They do not care about anything but their profit and stock prices. Corporations have no soul, no conscience. They only want to make more $ ,regardless of the cost of human and animal lives. How can we allow them to do this to us, to our planet ? Natural gas is the cheapest source of energy we have right now – but at what cost to the living creatures on this earth ? We are allowing this to happen without a whimper . Stupid is as stupid does.. Our children and grandchildren will pay a terrible price for this corporate greed Making $ regardless of the cost to ourselves is insane ! How can we do NOTHING to stop fracking now until it is tested and can be done safely.? We have only ourselves to blame. When we give Big Oil the same rights as a person, we are killing ourselves ! We need to speak with one voice and be heard, or they will continue contaminate our food sources. How dumb we ???

  3. The Democrats are bought just like the Republicans. Same corporate party. Get the people to help. Organize. Knock on doors. Use your constitution. It’s a good one. The people have the power. The gov. and corporations have the money but are few. Start a discussion with the PEOPLE not the ones in power who are corrupt. Doesn’t make sense.

  4. Just one correction here from Stephen Cleghorn. My farm is not yet surrounded by wells. The nearest ones are about 3 miles to the east and 3 miles to the south. My statement about people in farmers markets asking whether their food comes from fracked areas is based on my reading of accounts such as the one mentioned in Park Slope. Nonetheless, the threat to my farm and my goats is real and I am taking action to prevent the drilling from coming anywhere near my farm. It is not just my farm that is at risk; it is half the landmass of Pennsylvania and huge swaths of America where fracking is planned. I have taken a step to place a unique conservation easement on my farm, one that recognizes and seeks to protect the Rights of Nature and natural communities. Here is the press release on my blog and the entire easement is posted there as well: http://angerandcourage.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/recognizing-rights-of-nature-through-a-first-in-the-country-deed-easement/ I have also been deeply involved with educating my neighbors about the perils of fracking through community presentations of a PowerPoint that calls for a moratorium on the drilling in Pennsylvania. Of course the ultimate goal is to ban such drilling everywhere, but first people need to know what it is, what it does, and why it should be stopped. So I have published my analysis of that here in a presentation that is approaching 3,000 views. http://go.to/marcellusstop

    1. Kudo’s to you from NorthEast Pennsylvania, where the shale is abundant. It is hard enough to know that we are considered “the barnyard of Pennsylvania”, have heard rumors of chemical’s and such being dumped into our countryside. Now we have to deal with this. I do hope and pray that someone out there pays attention and help’s you to help other’s.

  5. All of this because Dick Cheney and the Oil Execs “Energy Commission” in 2005 got a bill passed into law that exempts oil / gas companies from the clean air and clean water acts and a multitude of other environmental laws. Number one thing to do. Have Cheney drink as much fracked water as his can for a year and see how he likes it. Number two, call your Congress men and women ask them to repeal this “Halliburton Loophole” Law.

  6. It is truly absurd that fossil fuel profits consistently matter more to many government agencies and representatives than the health and future of the citizens. If fracking and further push of fossil fuel drilling and use cause a dystopian future, profits will no longer matter. Thanks to Dr. Bamberger and Professor Oswald for making this study.

    Please contact your local and state representatives to voice your displeasure that more heed is not taken regarding the health dangers of fracking.

  7. There are numerous videos on YouTube about the concept of free energy, zero-point energy, and over unity systems. These appear to be energy solutions with realistic potential. There are also stories of people who have boosted fuel economy in cars to over 100 mpg, and electrical cars which have been developed, and in some cases sold and then pulled off the market, or they are prevented from being marketed in the first place. Maybe these inventions don’t work or are inefficient? Let the consumer decide, isn’t that how this country is supposed to work? But the same people forcing water and air pollution on us systematically kill these projects, and sometimes the people who are pursuing them, too, if the stories can be believed. We are captives. No president can save us. Only we can save ourselves. Clearly the corporate government has its own agenda which does not pertain to the wants of the people.

  8. That calf was most likely hit by a passing vehicle. it has blood coming from its nose. also, sick calves seldom walk to the roadside to lay over and die. Very Suspect.

    1. Could be. I just picked a generic picture of a dead cow. There are plenty of reports of fracking-related dead cows around here, but I couldn’t find a picture tied to the stories.

      1. Reports should use pictures from the area for which the article is written. Did you see “Promised Land”? You lose credibility.

  9. Why are they letting the cows in the fracking area. Can’t they close off the area to keep the animals safe? These corporations should be protecting their neighbors from harm.

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