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08/13/2013

Endangering Species

Elk River, WVElk River, West Virginia

When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, it did so with a goal of preventing the extinction of fish, wildlife, and plant species “as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” In the 40 years since the bill became law, it has protected thousands of species that might otherwise have been wiped out by logging, mining, construction, and other industrial activities in which biodiversity impacts would not otherwise have been considered. The law affirms the immeasurable importance of protecting endangered species and maintaining diverse ecosystems.

Today, a dangerous new industrial activity is starting to push species on to the endangered list—including one just last month. This activity—which has clearly gone “untempered by adequate concern”—is the natural gas drilling boom brought about by fracking.

Considering fracking’s dangerous health and environmental impacts, the fact that it puts species and critical habitats at risk shouldn’t be surprising. Fracking and natural gas development contaminate underground and aboveground water supplies, pollute our air and soil with hazardous chemicals, and create enormous amounts of toxic waste, which is sometimes accidently spilled—or simply dumped—into surface waters. Meanwhile, the construction of drilling sites and related infrastructure—including thousands of miles of pipelines and roadways—leads to deforestation, the destruction or fragmentation of critical habitats, and the degradation of waterways with sediment-laden stormwater runoff.

To understand the connection between fracking and biodiversity loss, we need look no further than the diamond darter fish, which will officially join the endangered species list on August 26. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), darters are a sign of healthy streams that have clean, high-quality water and strong species diversity. Healthy darter populations indicate “that a river is healthy and would sustain other populations of fish, such as musky or bass.” The diamond darter was originally found from Ohio to Tennessee, but dams and water quality degradation—among other factors—have now limited the fish to one stream in West Virginia’s Elk River.

And now, that aquatic refuge is threated by fracking and gas development. The Elk River watershed is one of the most heavily drilled parts of West Virginia, and the portion of the river that the diamond darter calls home is the most heavily drilled part of the watershed, with more than 2,320 active wells—most of them fracked. Drilling isn’t the diamond darter’s only concern, but in the endangered species listing for the fish, the FWS included a detailed outline of the problems caused by oil and gas development. Those problems include hazardous stormwater runoff, the disturbance of thousands of acres of land, and the potential for deadly wastewater spills.

The fracking process itself—which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground, to create cracks in shale formations and release the natural gas trapped inside—is also highly dangerous, according to the FWS. The massive amounts of water used for fracking are usually withdrawn from waterways close to drilling sites, which can shrink habitats, raise water temperatures, and increase the concentration of waterborne pollutants. The result, researchers have found, is a loss of native fish species—and darters have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to this threat.

The diamond darter is just one of a growing number of species, in places ranging from Minnesota to Alabama, which have become endangered partly due to fracking. Water withdrawal and wastewater spills have been associated with wildlife deaths and illnesses across the country, and in California, fracking is taking place in at least nine counties that are home to more than 100 endangered or threatened species. A recent study on drilling in Pennsylvania—perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at fracking’s connection to biodiversity loss—found that gas development threatens game birds and mammals, medicinal plants, sport fishes like the brook trout, and a host of other species, ranging from the American mink to the river otter.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of biodiversity—our planet’s abundance of living species helps regulate our climate, facilitates healthy ecosystems, and allows us to create diverse food products and innovative new medicines, among many other benefits. Human activity is responsible for an ongoing wave of mass extinctions. For our own sake and the sake of our planet, we need to stop destroying fish, wildlife, and plant species.

As cities and states decide whether they want to allow fracking—and as regulators decide how best to address it where it is already taking place—they should give serious consideration to its impacts on biodiversity. Those impacts are just one more reason to turn away from dangerous fossil fuels like natural gas and embrace clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which are safe for people, our planet, and everything living on it.

-- Sammy Roth


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