Burden of the Boom: Who Will Pay the Price for Fracking in California?

From polluted skies to contaminated drinking water and hazardous waste, communities of color in California get way more than their fair share.  If the oil and gas industry gets their way, drilling – and the environmental and health threats from fracking, acidizing, and other technologies – will be piled onto communities already staggering under smoggy skies and unsafe water.

In our new analysis of the more than 84,000 oil and gas wells in California, we found that 5.4 million people live within a mile of one or more of these wells. And more than a third (or 1.8 million) also live in communities ranked as the most threatened by pollution by the California Environmental Protection Agency. This means that there are an awful lot of people on the frontlines as fracking (and other technologies) enable oil and gas drilling to expand in California. And for nearly 2 million of them, the additional air, water, and soil contamination now being found in study after study in states across the country, will be all that more dangerous coming on top of an already heavy environmental burden.

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This extra pollution will disproportionately impact communities of color.  When we looked at the demographics of those communities with oil and gas wells and existing high levels of environmental pollution, we found that 92% of residents are people of color – identified by the census as 69% Hispanic/Latino, 11 percent Asian, 10% African American, and 2% Other. In contrast, Whites are the largest racial/ethnic group in communities without oil and gas wells and with lower levels of pollution.

I have spent the past couple of years examining the literature and speaking with experts from across the country about the health threats from fracking.  These experts are extremely concerned that the rush to utilize new techniques for oil and gas extraction is endangering the health of residents and impacting communities. In fact, a recent review of health threats identified 15 different components of unconventional oil and gas development, everything from trucks and tanks to chemicals and venting, which can present a chemical, physical and/or safety hazard.

The studies finding health-harming pollution in communities with oil and gas wells keeps piling up.  Air contaminants, linked to respiratory disease, neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer, have been found at unsafe levels at drill sites and whole communities have suffered from regional air problems, like ozone smog.  Contamination of water wells with gases, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactivity creates a risk for explosions and deprives communities of safe drinking water.  The safety of communities is also threatened by noise and light pollution, traffic accidents, chemical spills, fires, and blowouts.

There’s a lot at stake as fracking and other technologies move into California communities – many of which are not starting from a clean slate.  This underscores the need for California to place an immediate moratorium on expanded fracking and other controversial extraction techniques, to give the state time to fully analyze the risks and how to protect against them. Without careful evaluation of health threats before fracking is allowed to continue in California, these communities could pay a high price for California’s oil boom – the health and safety of their families. 

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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