Permits for hydraulic fracturing wells across Pennsylvania, 5 December 2011. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, Pennsylvania has seen an explosion in unconventional natural gas wells, with 5,243 permits issued by November 2011. Graphic: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

By Brian Bienkowski
6 May 2015

(Scientific America) – Fracking wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region are disproportionately located in poor rural communities, which bear the brunt of associated pollution, according to a new study.

The study bolsters concerns that poor people are more likely to deal with hydraulic fracturing in their community and raises concerns that such vulnerable populations will suffer the potential health impacts of air and water pollution associated with pulling gas from the ground.

“This trend is not one we’re surprised by, we see this in a lot of industries,” said Mike Ewall, founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit organization that works with U.S. communities dealing with pollution from energy.

However industry groups say hydraulic fracturing is in rural farming regions of Pennsylvania out of necessity and is providing some much needed economic stimulus. 

Researchers from Clark University mapped areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to identify areas with a lot of Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wells and then examined some local demographics: age, poverty and education levels, and race. […]

One thing was clear from the Clark University study: poverty levels are strongly associated with active fracking wells in Pennsylvania.

“Our analysis shows that environmental injustice was observed only in Pennsylvania, particularly with respect to poverty: in seven out of nine analyses, potentially exposed [census] tracts had significantly higher percent of people below poverty level than non-exposed tracts,” the authors wrote. […]

This week the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences released a study that found traces of a common fracking chemical in water from three homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the median household income is 10 percent lower than the rest of the state’s.

In addition, last month researchers reported that radon—the world’s second leading cause of lung cancer—is much more prevalent in Pennsylvania buildings near natural gas development than in other parts of the state. 

And a week after the radon study, the state released data that showed sulfur dioxide emissions soared 57 percent from 2012 to 2013 at Pennsylvania natural gas sites. Sulfur dioxide harms the respiratory system and can cause or worsen illnesses such as asthma. [more]

Poor Communities Bear Greatest Burden from Fracking


  • We use an environmental justice paradigm and GIS to determine unequal exposure to pollution from unconventional gas wells.
  • Sociodemographic indicators include age, poverty level, education level, and race.
  • The poor in Pennsylvania are unequally exposed to pollution from unconventional gas wells.

ABSTRACT: Modern forms of drilling and extraction have recently led to a boom in oil and gas production in the U.S. and stimulated a controversy around its economic benefits and environmental and human health impacts. Using an environmental justice paradigm this study applies Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial analysis to determine whether certain vulnerable human populations are unequally exposed to pollution from unconventional gas wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. Several GIS-based approaches were used to identify exposed areas, and a t-test was used to find statistically significant differences between rural populations living close to wells and rural populations living farther away. Sociodemographic indicators include age (children and the elderly), poverty level, education level, and race at the census tract level. Local Indicators of Spatial Autocorrelation (LISA) technique was applied to find spatial clusters where both high well density and high proportions of vulnerable populations occur. The results demonstrate that the environmental injustice occurs in areas with unconventional wells in Pennsylvania with respect to the poor population. There are also localized clusters of vulnerable populations in exposed areas in all three states: Pennsylvania (for poverty and elderly population), West Virginia (for poverty, elderly population, and education level) and Ohio (for children).

Spatial distribution of unconventional gas wells and human populations in the Marcellus Shale in the United States: Vulnerability analysis



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