Turns out that oil men have been crawling all over West Feliciana, my home parish back in Louisiana, leasing land. I’m not sure, but I think my own family has gotten in on the action. From the Baton Rouge Advocate:

John Hashagen, the parish manager and water superintendent in West Feliciana Parish, said he had no real concerns about the impact of fracking on groundwater.

The Tuscaloosa Shale deposit sits between 11,000 and 13,000 feet underground and is protected by two impervious limestone layers, Hashagen said.

I found this out by Googling “fracking” and “West Feliciana.” Why did I do that? Because of this piece in the current New Yorker. Excerpt:

Shale gas itself presents another potential problem. A recent study by researchers at Duke University showed that methane frequently leaks into drinking water near active fracking sites, which probably explains why some homeowners have been able to set their tap water on fire. Yet another possible source of contamination is so-called “flowback” water. Huge quantities of water are used in fracking, and as much as forty per cent of it can come back up out of the gas wells, bringing with it corrosive salts, volatile organic compounds, and radioactive elements, such as radium. Citing public-health concerns, Pennsylvania recently asked drillers to stop taking flowback water to municipal treatment plants.

To be sure, the Tuscaloosa Shale deposit is not natural gas, but oil. I suppose this might make a difference in the methane problem, but I don’t know that this makes much difference in terms of potential chemical contamination from fracking chemicals. Of far more concern is this long NYT Magazine piece about fracking in Pennsylvania. The shale gas industry is a very, very big deal here. It has been a huge economic boon to people in the west of the state. But it’s come at a high cost to some. You really need to read these excerpts:

When the natural-gas industry came to town, Haney saw an opportunity to pay off farm bills and make a profit from the land. Word had it that the companies were interested in signing up large parcels, so in the winter of 2008, Haney, who owned only eight acres, persuaded two of her neighbors to pool their land on a lease for which she was paid, in installments, $1,000 dollars per acre and 15 percent royalties.

The money would help to pay the taxes on their farms. The land man who came to the Haney home to sell the lease showed pictures of a farm and pasture with a well cap “the size of a garbage can,” Haney said, which she found reassuring. And it didn’t seem as if the drilling would affect their lives much. Range Resources was involved in the community in small ways too. For the past several years, it operated a booth at the Washington County Fair. In 2010, the company offered kids an extra $100 for the farm animals they auctioned. That was the year Stacey Haney’s son, Harley, took his breeding goat, Boots, all the way to grand champion.

At the fair, Haney ran into her next-door neighbor, Beth Voyles, 54, a horse trainer and dog breeder, who signed the lease with Haney in 2008. She told Haney that her 11 /2-year-old boxer, Cummins, had just died. Voyles thought that he was poisoned. She saw the dog drinking repeatedly from a puddle of road runoff, and she thought that the water the gas company used to wet down the roads probably had antifreeze in it. “We do not use ethylene glycol in the fracking process,” Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources told me. He also said that the dog’s veterinarian couldn’t confirm the dog had been poisoned and that another possible cause of death was cancer.

A month later, Haney’s dog, Hunter, also died suddenly. Soon after, Voyles called Haney to tell her that her barrel horse, Jody, was dead. Lab results revealed a high level of toxicity in her liver. Voyles sent her animals’ test results to Range Resources. In response, Range Resources wrote to Voyles to say that, as the veterinarian indicated, the horse died of toxicity of the liver, not antifreeze poisoning. The company did acknowledge that the vet suspected the horse died of poisoning by heavy metals. Subsequent tests of the Voyleses’ water supply by Range Resources revealed no heavy metals.

Voyles’s boxers began to abort litters of puppies; six were born with cleft palates. They died within hours. Others were born dead or without legs or hair. Unsure what to do, Voyles stored 15 of the puppies in her freezer. (Range Resources says it was never notified about the puppies.) By December, Boots, the grand-champion goat, aborted two babies. Haney had to put her down the day after Christmas.

What was going on with the animals? Where were the toxic chemicals in their blood coming from? Haney feared that the arrival of the gas industry and the drilling that had begun less than 1,000 feet from her home might have something to do with it.

And then things got worse for Stacey Haney:

About a year before Haney’s dog died, in the summer of 2009, she began to notice that sometimes her water was black and that it seemed to be eating away at her faucets, washing machine, hot-water heater and dishwasher. When she took a shower, the smell was terrible — like rotten eggs and diarrhea. Haney started buying bottled water for drinking and cooking, but she couldn’t afford to do the same for her animals.

Later that summer, her son, Harley, was stricken with mysterious stomach pains and periods of extreme fatigue, which sent him to the emergency room and to Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital a half-dozen times. “He couldn’t lift his head out of my lap,” Haney said. Early in November of the following year, after the animals died, Haney decided to have Harley tested for heavy metals and ethylene glycol. While she waited for the results, Haney called Range Resources and asked that it supply her with drinking water. The company tested her water and found nothing wrong with it. Haney’s father began to haul water to her barn.

A week later, on Haney’s 41st birthday, Harley’s test results came back. Harley had elevated levels of arsenic. Haney called Range Resources again. The company delivered a 5,100-gallon tank of drinking water, called a water buffalo, the next day. “Our policy is if you have a complaint or a concern, we’ll supply you with a water source within 24 hours,” Pitzarella of Range Resources said. He added that the company has “never seen any evidence that anyone in that household has arsenic issues.”

Although she was able to work 40 hours as a nurse and care for two kids and a small farm, Haney wasn’t feeling great, either. So a few months later, she had herself and Paige tested too. Their tests results showed they had small amounts of heavy metals like arsenic and industrial solvents like benzene and toluene in their blood. Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai said that the results show evidence of exposure, but that it was difficult to determine potential health effects at the levels found. But he added: “These people are exposed to arsenic and benzene, known human carcinogens. There’s considered to be no safe levels of these chemicals.” Pitzarella says that Range Resources was never shown these reports and that arsenic has nothing to do with fracking. Pitzarella cited a study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania that found that 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s water wells had at least one pre-existing water-quality problem, and that there was no obvious influence on private water-well quality from fracking. In a previous study, 2 percent of the state’s wells had arsenic levels that exceeded health standards.

You know the rest. People who are making money off of fracking — and note well, this isn’t the “rich,” but ordinary small landowners who are hard-pressed by the economy — don’t want to hear people like Stacey Haney telling them by their own example that fracking is making some people extremely sick, and poisoning the water they drink. People whose bank accounts depend on not seeing things tend not to see them.

Anybody know the story about Louisiana? Is it really true that “two impervious layers of limestone” protect the groundwater from fracking chemicals? What about the disposal of frack water? Suddenly, the fracking issue has become real personal to me.

And: what is the fracking story out where you live?