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Environmental Chemist Wilma Subra on the Barnett Shale Bonanza and Its Costs

By 2008, the high price of natural gas, coupled with the novel combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, touched off a modern-day gold rush in the Barnett Shale. Regulators were caught on their heels.

"They moved forward very rapidly, and state regulatory programs had a difficult time catching up," says Wilma Subra, a chemist and MacArthur Genius Grant fellow who was featured in the documentary Gasland. "They pulled field staff in to write permits."

The communities at the shale boom's epicenter have only just begun to understand how unconventional gas production affects their bodies. But that's exactly what Subra does. She's spent her life empirically gauging the effects of heavy industry and oil and gas exploration, drilling and production on those who live in its midst. She started out at the Gulf South Research Institute, a bio-tech thinktank contracted by the EPA to conduct environmental impact studies. She started her own consulting firm in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 1981, specifically to assist communities grappling with environmental issues.

More recently, she testified before a congressional committee about the health effects clean-up workers face following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She's conducted sampling in North Texas communities like Argyle, Dish and Flower Mound, and in other major shale plays across the country, where natural gas extraction moved out of the pastures and into populated areas. Regulatory oversight has been ineffectual to nonexistent, she says. As a result, people became living laboratories in an unprecedented mineral play.

"We're seeing surface water contamination from leaks and spills of produced water. We're seeing deeper groundwater contamination from the failure of cement and casing. We're seeing air emissions from produced fluids, compressor stations, and along pipelines," Subra says.

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Exposure begins, she says, with respiratory problems, skin rashes, neurological impairments and finally cardiovascular issues.

"We find [volatile organic compounds] in the air. A lot of methane and ethane in the air. In the water, we find materials used in drilling and fracks: the volatiles, the [semi-volatile organic compounds] and heavy metals," she says.

Subra recommends that homeowners test their water before drilling operations begin, so that they can establish background levels for certain contaminants associated with fracking before it's too late. "I've compiled a list of what chemicals you should be testing for in water: volatiles, semi-volatiles, heavy metals and radioactivity. There's lots of naturally occurring radium that comes from the formation that contaminates fracking fluid before it comes back up."

Subra says she recently met with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the EPA regarding sickness in several North Texas towns. Regulators, she says, are evaluating whether to shut down nuisance operators.

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