The rival nominees for Allegheny County executive disagree on whether to frack and industry's role in air quality, among other things.
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PITTSBURGH — The largest natural gas-producing counties in Appalachia have had worse economic outcomes than the rest of the region and the nation since the start of the region’s fracking boom, according to a new report.
In the early days of the Marcellus Shale boom, the natural gas industry and policymakers promised that the industry would bring economic prosperity, including hundreds of thousands of new jobs and downstream businesses to the region, which has long been plagued by a lack of jobs and dwindling populations. The Marcellus Shale spreads across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky.
The report, conducted by the progressive think tank Ohio River Valley Institute, found that the 22 counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that produce 90% of Appalachian natural gas actually lost a combined 10,339 jobs and 47,652 residents between 2008 and 2021. Income growth in these counties also trailed growth for the combined states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia by 4 percentage points, and the U.S. as a whole by 16 percentage points, according to the report.
The Ohio River Valley Institute published a similar report in 2021 that looked at data from 2008 to 2019. The new report adds data from 2020 and 2021 to the analysis and finds that economic decline in these counties has generally continued despite a boost in natural gas prices and production in recent years.
“There are still many policymakers and people in the region who hold out hope that natural gas development and downstream industries like petrochemicals will ultimately become an economic savior,” Sean O’Leary, lead author of the report and a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, said during a press conference. “That faith is being undermined.”
Petrochemical plants have been proposed throughout Appalachia to turn fracked gas into plastic (99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels). As the world decarbonizes, the oil and gas industry is increasingly turning toward plastic production to sustain demand for fossil fuels. To date, only one Appalachian petrochemical plant has been built — Shell’s ethane cracker in western Pennsylvania — and so far, it has also failed to deliver economic growth in surrounding communities.
Several Pennsylvania lawmakers who support the oil and gas industry in the name of local economic development did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report. The industry makes sizable donations to oil and gas-friendly lawmakers in the state.
Credit: Ohio River Valley Institute
In addition to analyzing job and income growth, the report uses Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation, the largest domestic producer of natural gas in the U.S., as an example of why the industry hasn’t resulted in more economic growth.
In 2010, EQT Corporation ranked 25th among U.S. natural gas producers and employed 1,815 people. By 2021, its output had more than tenfolded and it had become the number one producer in the nation, but it had just 624 employees. Some employees were lost to a spin-off, but including the employees at the spinoff company (Equitrans Midstream) brings the company’s total job count to just 1,395 in 2020 — still a quarter smaller than EQT’s workforce in 2010.
“EQT’s tale of skyrocketing output accompanied by a workforce decline of about a quarter sheds light on the economic potential of the shale gas industry,” O’Leary said in a statement. “It also shows why, as the gas industry matures, it becomes less jobs-intensive and less economically stimulating: as existing wells account for a growing share of output, fewer workers are needed to dig new wells or construct new transport infrastructure.”
In recent years, policymakers in Appalachia have pinned their hopes for economic development from fossil fuel extraction on downstream businesses like petrochemicals and a proposed hydrogen hub, which O’Leary says face similar challenges when it comes to fostering local economic development.
The Energy Information Administration’s most recent forecast for domestic natural gas production between now and 2050 estimates that natural gas production will stagnate, which could drive employment rates for the industry even lower.
“This industry was not able to deliver prosperity during the time when it was vibrant and growing,” O’Leary said, “so what are the chances that it's likely to do that as it reaches the stasis of middle age and stagnates?”
A coal town called Centralia in Washington state took an innovative approach to economic redevelopment after the shut-down of its two largest employers, a coal mine and a coal-fired power plant.
Centralia and surrounding Lewis County used $55 million in federal economic transition funds toward initiatives focused on energy efficiency, renewable resources and education to create local jobs. Within four years of receiving that funding in 2016, Centralia recorded job growth at twice the national average, wage growth 50% greater than that of the nation, a restored downtown and a growing population.
In 2021, the Ohio River Valley Institute authored a report detailing Centralia’s strategy and illustrating how economically distressed fossil fuel communities in Appalachia could follow suit.
“That’s critical for a region which has seemingly tried everything else,” O’Leary said. “And pursuing the Centralia model doesn’t conflict with the hydrogen hub, or a petrochemical hub, or even natural gas. It just means that we should stop mistaking the natural gas industry and its assorted hubs for economic development strategies, because they are not.”
Editor's note: The Ohio River Valley Institute and EHN.org both receive funding from the Heinz Endowments. Their work remains independent from the foundation.
PITTSBURGH—Residents living near fracking wells were more likely to experience childhood cancer, severe asthma attacks and low birth weights, found three long-awaited studies on fracking and health released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Tuesday evening.
The three studies, conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s school of public health, looked at health records and fracking data from 2010-2020 in the 8-county Southwestern Pennsylvania region, including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
Pennsylvania ranks second only to Texas in natural gas production, with most drilling happening in the southwestern part of the state. The state’s health department initiated the research in 2019 after a rash of rare childhood cancers were documented in some of the state’s most heavily-fracked counties. In response to pleas from impacted communities, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf allocated $3 million for the studies to investigate the health impacts of fracking in the region.
“These studies are not the end of the story,” Ned Ketyer, a retired pediatrician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania who served on the external advisory board for the studies, said during a public meeting where the study results were shared. “They’re really just the beginning.”
People with asthma living within 10 miles of fracking wells were four to five times more likely to experience a severe asthma attack during the production phase, the study found. Credit: Flickr/ Nenad Stojkovic
The childhood cancer study found that Southwestern Pennsylvania children who lived within one mile of one or more fracking wells were five to seven times more likely to develop lymphoma compared to children who don’t live near fracking wells; and that children living closest to the highest density of wells had the highest risk. The study did not find an association between living near fracking wells and rates of certain other types of childhood cancer, including bone tumors, leukemia and central nervous system tumors.
The asthma study found that people with asthma living within 10 miles of fracking wells were four to five times more likely to experience a severe asthma attack during the production phase at the wells. During the production phase, natural gas and oil flow from deep underground to the surface and are collected. Production happens after well pad preparation, drilling, and hydraulic fracturing, and is the longest-lasting phase in the process. Severe asthma attacks among southwestern Pennsylvanians living near fracking wells most frequently impacted kids between 5 and13 years old.
Dozens of other studies have linked living near fracking wells with various health problems, including poor birth outcomes. Credit: Christian Bowen on Unsplash
The birth outcome study found an increased risk of having babies that are small for gestational age — a risk factor for long-term neurological and cognitive issues — among southwestern Pennsylvanians living within 10 miles of fracking wells. It also found an increased risk of low birth weights, another risk factor associated with long-term health problems, during the production phase of fracking. Birth weights got lower as the volume of fracking well exposure increased, the study found.
The research adds to dozens of other studies linking living near fracking wells with various health problems, including cancer, poor birth outcomes and cardiovascular and respiratory problems.
“It’s never a good thing to have your children be canaries in the coal mine,” said Raina Rippel, a longtime community health advocate. “What does all of this mean for the oil field workers, who are getting these exposures more directly, all day, every day?”
Public health advocates in Southwestern Pennsylvania have been calling for better protections from the oil and gas industry since the beginning of the Marcellus Shale boom in the early 2000s. In response to the studies’ findings, they reiterated those requests.
In 2021, Environmental Health News (EHN) published an investigation indicating that fracking chemicals are making their way into the bodies of families living nearby, prompting 35 state lawmakers to call for more testing and better protections for residents living near fracking operations.
During the public meeting where the study results were announced, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Health announced that it was launching a continuing medical education program on environmental exposures, had developed a new tool for submitting environmental health complaints, and that it would continue to review cancer data in the region.
“We know these next steps we’re taking do not relieve the pain, suffering and worry that many of you are experiencing,” said the department’s executive deputy secretary Kristen Rodack. “But we’re committing to doing a better job to protect you from environmental health risks in these communities.”
Environmental health advocacy groups including Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Pennsylvania chapter, the Environmental Health Project, the Center for Coalfield Justice, the Mountain Watershed Association and FracTracker Alliance issued a statement prior to Tuesday’s meeting calling for a list of new protective actions.
These requests include asking the government to tighten regulations around all oil and gas activities, increasing non-industry-reported data on pollution and fully funding the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health. They also called on Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro and Pennsylvania’s legislature to enact the eight recommendations made in a 2020 Grand Jury Report investigating the state’s shale gas industry. Those recommendations include increasing transparency about the chemicals used during fracking, requiring safer transport of those materials and extending fracking well distances from homes, schools, childcare centers, and nursing homes.
Advocates have also asked the state Department of Health to work with federal agencies to conduct comprehensive health impact assessments on shale gas development in affected areas and to work more closely and transparently with these communities.
The Department of Health didn’t respond specifically to these requests, but agency representatives did express a willingness to listen more closely.
“The Department of Health is making a concerted effort to be more transparent and listen to the community more frequently,” said Rodack. “I know the feeling is that we have not done that in the past and I will apologize on behalf of the department for that.”
PITTSBURGH—There’s nothing better than a summer day spent in the garden — but be careful where you plant it.
Villanova University researchers tested 21 gardens in Pennsylvania— many built on former industrial sites — and found concerning levels of heavy metals, particularly lead. Five of the gardens were in Pittsburgh and the rest were in the city and suburban areas of Philadelphia. The researchers found lead, zinc, copper, cadmium, nickel, vanadium and arsenic. While all levels — except some vanadium— were below Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection guidelines, the researchers chose to focus on lead as it has the most negative effects on human health —there is no safe level of lead exposure.
This study raises questions about the health of urban community gardens in industrialized areas, as heavy metals like lead can absorb into the vegetables or contaminate them if the vegetables are not washed well. Children playing in gardens are also at risk for ingesting lead that gets on their hands from the soil. The toxic metal causes attention problems, decreased IQ, increased problem behaviors, kidney disease, preeclampsia and cardiovascular issues.
Kabindra M. Shakya, a professor in the geography and the environment department at Villanova who led the study, became aware that some Philadelphia residents were concerned about soil on a lot they wanted to grow vegetables on. “They were to make a community garden and they had heard of lead being a concern. They were trying to send some soil for analysis,” he told Environmental Health News (EHN). The gardens tested in Pittsburgh were all in urban areas and generally less than an acre in size. The researchers noted that many of the sites formerly contained smelters or other industrial operations.
Because there is not one universal standard for lead levels, the team for this study used the standard of 140 mg/kg of soil. Shakya felt the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 400 mg/kg of soil was too high — along with Canada, several other countries and the state of California consider 80 mg/kg of soil to present health risks for consumers — particularly children. “Sixty percent of the beds we tested exceeded the standard by Canadian guidelines,” he said.
Olivia Bassetti, who graduated with B.S. in Environmental Science from Villanova University in 2022, completed her two semesters senior thesis working in this project.
Credit: Kabindra M. Shakya
Jasen Bernthisel, community garden project manager at Grow Pittsburgh, told EHN the organization has been aware that lead contamination could be an issue. “For gardens entering our New Garden Program, we conduct a comprehensive soil test of entire community garden sites,” he said. If the results are elevated, Grow Pittsburgh either works with garden groups to find a new plot of land or recommends raised beds. “We also encourage the use of best practices in organic growing, including amending soils with compost, mulching and thoroughly washing vegetables after harvesting,” he said.
Grow Pittsburgh’s Sustainability Fund program allows community gardens to apply for support including soil testing. Their Garden Resource Center partners with organizations in Allegheny County to offer free soil testing for private and community gardens to community residents, too.
At the West Penn Park in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood, garden volunteer Cindy Crabb told EHN that they’ve been concerned about lead in soil. West Penn Park was not part of the study, but Crabb said the data has implications for the garden. They’ve laid landscape fabric, brought in topsoil and installed a drip irrigation system that does not splash onto vegetables to reduce potential contamination. Planting veggies that grow above ground, such as peppers, versus in-ground crops like carrots and potatoes, can also reduce lead levels in food.
“I am hoping this study will help the city government have a more strategic plan to support community gardens in lead remediation,” Crabb said.
She also said that Grow Pittsburgh has helped them balance the pH and phosphorus in the soil, which can help prevent plants from absorbing lead from contaminated soil. But their biggest need, she said, is for the city government to provide water sources for all the gardens so they can wash all the vegetables. ” Crabb notes that city councilwoman Deb Gross has been proactive in supporting healthy community gardens that provide food to under-resourced residents, but there is still much work to do.
Many community gardens are placed on abandoned lots where structures were razed, which contributes to soil contamination. When a smelter, forge or other factory is demolished, it can still affect the ground where it sat for decades. Should private residents be concerned about their own soil, though?
The industrial history in the Pittsburgh area means any soil could be contaminated and testing is the only way to assure safety — even if someone has been in their home for many years. “Despite the industrial activities that have ceased, heavy metals do persist in the soil for a long time,” Shishir Paudel, a plant ecologist with the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, told EHN.
At Phipps, Paudel and his colleagues test for lead and other contaminants as part of their regular growing procedure. He said there are some steps backyard growers can take, including soil testing, adding organic matter and compost to the soil, using raised beds, adding lime or adjusting the soil pH, rotating plants that maintain soil health such as sunflowers and mustard and using drip irrigation such as the system used at West Penn Park.
While this study was relatively small, Shakya and his team do plan to look further into this issue. “We are not only looking at gardens, but will be looking at the community’s water as well. We are concerned with how much lead is in the municipal tap water, backyards and children’s play areas as well.”