The Impossible Just Takes a Bit Longer

By Rebecca Ruggles, Founder

I must admit I thought it would be impossible to pass a fracking ban in Maryland.  But sometimes the impossible happens.  It just takes a bit longer.

Many people organizations can rightly take credit for helping to realize Maryland’s fracking ban. The reality is none of us has the whole story, but share pieces that each of us lived over the past half-decade or more. These are stories we should proudly tell to our family, friends, and colleagues.  These stories bear recording and repeating.

In 2012, the Maryland Environmental Health Network was one-year-old as an organization, and was preparing our first policy agenda summarizing health research on each of six major environmental threats facing Maryland.  Fracking was one of the six.

In 2012, the environmental science and health literature on fracking was already frightening. In the fall, we held a meeting on Fracking and Health for our network. We learned from Dr. Jerome Paulson that physicians and public health officials were noticeably absent from fracking commissions across the country. Public health threats ranged from flaming water to head-ache inducing fumes, poisoned farm animals sent to slaughter and children with unexplainable nosebleeds.

MdEHN, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments sent a letter to the Governor asking for a public health representative to be appointed to the Maryland Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. That commission had been meeting monthly for almost two years when we made this request.   Its previous agendas focused on well casing technology, underground shale formations in Western Maryland, the lifespan of an average well.  We wanted health issues to get a public hearing.

Shortly after we sent our letter, the head of Environmental Health for Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was appointed.  Subsequently, a group of us began monthly trips out to western Maryland, sitting through 5-hour Commission meetings so we could stand up at the end during a 15-minute public comment period and raise our concerns about health implications.

Our comments focused on citing science and raising issues of harm to people, bucking the louder themes of Commission meetings.  Between meetings, we read the literature, and strategized about which health studies to flag. Throughout 2013, we agitated for a robust discussion of the threats to drinking water sources, the nature of air pollution at wells, the potential for toxic chemical spills, the social disruption from an influx of workers living in “man camps”.

After persistent raising of the troubling findings in the latest research Maryland became one of just a few states to commission an analysis of the public health issues.

In the summer of 2014, the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health graph_fracking(MIAEH) competed their hazard evaluation study.  Their process approximated a Health Impact Assessment, with public engagement of a wide range of stakeholders including many Western Marylanders. Their finished report weighed the evidence on eight key hazards:  air quality, healthcare infrastructure, occupational health, social determinants of health, cumulative exposures, water, noise, and earthquakes.

At MdEHN, we saw the opportunity to insist that this be a basis for policy-making.  Together with Chesapeake PSR, we recruited national experts from across the country to attend a September symposium to ask the key question: Is there any evidence that fracking can be done safely and without undue risks to the public health?

The experts’ answer to the question:  Not yet! Maryland should wait 10 years, while data could be gathered, and scientific studies conducted.

Simultaneously, the ranks of activists were swelling. At meetings of the Marcellus Shale Commission during 2014, the time for public comment expanded. Commissioners understood that controversy was growing.  Western Marylanders were getting educated.

Groups like Citizen Shale, Food and Water Watch, Maryland Sierra Club, Engage Mountain Maryland, HoCo Climate Change, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network – as well as MdEHN and Chesapeake PSR – drew growing audiences to Commission meetings.   By October 2014, it was clear that the Maryland Department of the Environment would issue draft regulations as a “gold standard,” making Maryland a supposed safe state for fracking.  Many of us had pored over those proposed regulationss and we knew – they could do nothing to restore a poisoned aquifer, eliminate social disruption when man camps moved into a community, repair the local roads that would be chewed up by fracking trucks, and clean the air of particulates generated by diesel truck traffic and equipment.

The “gold standard” regulations could not eliminate those eight hazard areas in the Maryland Marcellus Shale Health Study. People rightly asked: How can any regulatory regime keep us safe?

We had other questions, what will be the full economic impact on Western Maryland if tourism and recreational industries are damaged by fracking? And what about the impacts on small businesses and on the value of vacation homes?

In November 2014, the “gold standard” regulations evaporated.

After the September Symposium we decided:  Why not fight for a 10-year moratorium?  The researchers had given us the green light to make that demand, on the basis of science. And in the wake of the new gubernatorial election we had the political impetus to go all out.

Our 10-year ask became an 8-year proposal, and then was whittled down to a 2-year moratorium running until October 2017. Someone else should tell that tale. Because, MdEHN was less involved, as political calculations and community organizing took precedence.

With our partner organizations, we formed Concerned Health Professionals of Maryland. CHP-MD was modelled on the successful group in New York that had assured that health science influenced New Yorks decision not to frack.   We continued pulling key points out of long research reports and scientific studies, and were gratified when Delegate David Frasier-Hidalgo, a former firefighter, agreed to sponsor a moratorium bill based on health and safety concerns.  We were emboldened when new Chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, Kumar Barve, told us that he would follow the science.

In the modified moratorium bill, we were saddled with a very unpalatable amendment – that MDE would issue regulations for drilling by October 2017.  With faulty regulations again on the horizon, activists saw that a ban was the only worthy goal.

MdEHN became part of a crowd calling for the Maryland legislature to pass a ban.  It seemed like an incredible reach, and politically very unlikely under Governor Hogan who had stated his belief that fracking could be done safely.  But what did we have to lose?  The more we asked for, the better our bargaining position would be. And across Maryland during those two years from 2015 to 2017, towns and counties were passing their own bans and resolutions, and popular opinion was moving our way.

We felt the ground shift under our feet in 2014. Governor Hogan twice played a pivotal role. In December 2014, we were propelled to drop the fruitless internal bickering over regulations and demand a moratorium.

In March 2017, with Democrat leaders in the Senate claiming that a ban bill could not be veto-proof, we were again faced with settling for a moratorium.  This time, the unpalatable add-on was Senate President Miller’s proposal of county referendums, making fracking an election issue in 2018, and worse, threatening to split the state between the fracks and the frack-nots.

Years of united defense through the efforts of so many activists, made Fracking an unavoidable controversy.

The path to building political will among Democrats was paved with realtors fearing lost property values, with renters realizing that they would remain behind after landowners leased their lands and moved away from the noise and pollution, with small business owners feeling their livelihoods being threatened, with parents fearing increased asthma attacks for their kids, with nurses and physicians speaking out about toxic frack fluid chemicals, and with Western Maryland residents realizing their special quality of life in one of Maryland’s most beautiful corners was at stake.

I used to think that we would need to demand a ban on fracking in order to resuscitate the idea of a 10-year moratorium.  And I didn’t relish that. I was just being practical.  A ban would be impossible given the gas industry’s power and the pro-(big) business stance of our governor.

Such a great feeling it is, sometimes, to be wrong! The impossible just took a little longer.

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