Californian almond farm ruined by fracking company operations

In January 2010, a farmer was awarded USD$8.5million damages by an unconventional shale gas extraction (USGE) company that had been found guilty of contaminating local waters that had accessed his farmland.

Farmer Fred Starrh of Kern County, California owns 6,000 acres of farmland that harvested pistachios, alfalfa, cotton and almonds.

Oil and Gas company Aera Energy are estimated to have dumped 2.4billion barrels of ‘produced’ fracking waste water into unlined percolation ponds on the edge of Mr Starrh’s land.

Mr Starrh noticed the environmental damage after he mixed his ground water with local aqueduct water that watered his cotton plants, before they wilted heavily. The water also killed off almond trees that he had managed to farm at 155 per acre.

Mr Starrh had considered that contaminants of the produced frack waste water could have caused the pollution. Well waters within his land were tested and were found to be positive for boron and chloride – two chemicals associated with the USGE callied out by Aera Energy, a joint venture between Shell and Exxon Mobil.

After a nine year court case, Mr Starrh was awarded $8.5million in damages by Kern County Court. However, despite winning his case against Aera Energy, Starrh appealed the court decision, stating that, as a result of the damage caused by Aera, he will need as much as $2 billion to rehabilitate his land and construct terraced ponds to properly “flush” his soil and groundwater of toxins.

Mr Starrh was in court again last year as a jury retired on 8th March 2013 to determine wether Mr Starrh be awarded further punitive damages from Aera Energy in order to fully remediate his land.

As a result of previous findings about Aera’s responsibility for the pollution, much of the case has revolved around the usefulness of Starrh’s native groundwater with regard to irrigation.

Aera’s lead attorney, Stephen Kristovich recalled testimony that the area’s groundwater has long been understood to be too salty and with too much boron to work on crops, hence the farming boom that arrived with the California Aqueduct in the 1960s.

Starrh’s attourney Ralph Wegis countered by referencing studies suggesting that at least 20 different crops can live on Starrh’s native groundwater.

In a practice he called ‘devoid of morals’, Wegis drew attention to Aera’s use of an accounting concept known as “net present value” to make, or help make, strategic decisions. By using the system, Wegis claimed Aera used net present value to determine that it was more profitable over the long run — even in the event of a jury’s award of punitive damages — to let the groundwater pollution continue into Mr Starrh’s farmland, rather than offer remediative or preventative measures.

Kristovich responded by saying that net present value has been just one of many criteria guiding Aera’s decisions, and that the others include environmental responsibility. He added, “There’s nothing wrong with using economics and using that as part of your decision-making process.”

In his rebuttal, Wegis told the jury that Aera decided it was in its best financial interest to wait rather than stop the pollution.

The jury returned 13th March 2013 to deny Mr Starrh further punitive damages, stating that Aera Energy’s contamination of the adjacent aquifer was accidental.

Mr Starrh was dissapointed in the result, “I was totally devastated, that’s all,” Starrh said. “I couldn’t accept it from a personal perspective.”

Mr Starrh and his attourney Ralph Wegis will re-appeal the decision.
Fred starrh
***

References

1) Millar, J. (2010). Oil and Water Don’t Mix with California Agriculture. Available: http://www.hcn.org/issues/42.21/oil-and-water-dont-mix-with-california-agriculture. Last accessed 17/04/2010

2) The Bakersfield Californian. (2013). Aera-Starrh lawsuit goes to jury. Available: http://www.bakersfieldcalifornian.com/business/x837007080/Aera-Starrh-lawsuit-goes-to-jury. Last accessed 17/04/2014.

3)The Bakersfield Californian. (2013). Akern grower gets another bumper crop of disappointment. Available: http://www.bakersfieldcalifornian.com/business/oil/x738927654/Kern-grower-gets-another-bumper-crop-of-disappointment. Last accessed 17/04/2014.

Beer Purity Threatened by Fracking Say Brewers


German brewers have called on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to block the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, citing industry concerns that fracking could taint the purity of the country’s beer.

The Association of German Breweries have rejected the government’s planned legislation on fracking until groundwater contamination can be safely excluded. They say that current proposals are inadequate to protect drinking water and risk infringing the country’s 500-year-old law on beer purity.

Follow the link below to read the article on Bloomberg in full, and meanwhile enjoy No Fracking Ireland’s uniquely Irish take on the news in the image above.

German Beer Purity Threatened by Fracking Say Brewers – Bloomberg.

Will Fracking Impact My Family?

In this excellent article, farmer, writer and mother Laura Grace Weldon looks at the issue of fracking and how it is likely to affect families, businesses and the natural world in her neighbourhood of rural Ohio.  Obviously some of the issues she discussed are particular to the United States, but most are universal and particularly important in any farming region.  It’s a well-written, thoughtful and balanced piece, with plenty of pictures and links to further sources of information. Click on the link below to read it now.

Will Fracking Impact My Family? | GeekMom | Wired.com.

(The photo above left shows the Weldon family, from Laura Weldon’s blog Bit of Earth Farm)

NFU (Canada) calls for fracking moratorium

The National Farmers Union of Canada has called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, concluding that the process poses a danger to water, food and farmland.

“Many farmers in my area who either have direct experience with the destructive nature of hydro-fracking technology on their water wells, or who have neighbours who have been affected have come to me with their concerns” says Jan Slomp, Rimbey area dairy farmer and Region 7 (Alberta) Coordinator for the National Farmers Union (NFU). “We are in the heart of Alberta’s oil and gas country where our ability to produce good, wholesome food is at risk of being compromised by the widespread, virtually unregulated use of this dangerous process.”

At NFU Region 7’s recent public meeting dozens of concerned farm families heard how their neighbours, the Campbell family from Crestomere, Alberta, had their water well contaminated by highly toxic compounds, which they clearly linked to the fracking of a nearby oil and gas well. Several other attendees then brought forward their stories of losing water wells to fracking near their own farms. “Not many of these stories get made public because the oil and gas companies usually force farmers to sign confidentiality agreements in return for replacement of their water wells” said Slomp.

Iain Aitken, an Alberta cattle rancher and local NFU member observed, “Farmers across Canada largely depend on ground water aquifers for both domestic use and livestock production. The quality of ground water is critical to raising high quality food. Unfortunately in the experience of too many Alberta farmers and ranchers hydraulic fracturing has been associated with water well contamination and damage. That is why our organization is calling for a moratorium on this technique until these problems can be addressed.”

Jan Slomp concluded “The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have really acknowledged there are problems with fracking by releasing several useful suggestions for guidelines to prevent further problems. However these voluntary guidelines are no substitute for strong regulations enforced by an impartial government body. That is what is needed before we can support any resumption of fracking.”

The NFU represents thousands of family farms across Canada. At its 2011 annual convention members passed a landmark resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing of sub-surface oil and gas formations.

Farmers express fracking fears

Our recent Fracking awareness meetings in Florencecourt and Cashel have been well attended by local people including many from the farming community. There was also a good turnout of fishermen at the Cashel meeting.

Farmers were particularly concerned about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the local agri-food industry. These small businesses are dependent on quality production to maintain their position in this niche market.   The slightest suggestion of contamination of beef or milk could mean financial ruin.  Speaking after the meeting Dr Carroll O’Dolan, spokesperson for FFAN, noted that where the farming community are struggling to survive in the current economic climate “even the perception of contamination could destroy the local agri-food industry”. At the end of the Cashel meeting committee members of the Garrison-Lough Melvin Anglers Association spoke of their concerns about fracking and its impact on the fishing on the famous waters of Lough Melvin.

 

Farmers who had diversified into tourism were equally anxious.  They spoke of huge personal and public investments in Fermanagh’s tourism industry.  This investment has created a brand recognised both nationally and internationally – ‘Fermanagh welcomes you naturally’.  But will tourists still want to come here if Fermanagh loses its green and clean image to become one of concrete, heavy industry and heavy traffic? If there is a long term risk of water contamination and/or toxic chemicals getting into the food chain how will our fishing and Lakelands fare?  There is a real concern that secure jobs in Fermanagh’s tourism industry could be under threat if ‘fracking’ is allowed to go ahead to be replaced by short term “potential” jobs.

Looking ahead, many were concerned about what happens when the extraction process is over.  “Industrialised land” covered with concrete and contaminated with chemicals both above & below ground, cannot be farmed; indeed the landowners may find themselves responsible for difficult and expensive clean-up operations.

Other farmers were downright angry; if they are strictly regulated and penalised if they deviate from DARD & DOE regulations, then why were four exploration licenses for shale gas and oil extraction issued in Northern Ireland with very little consideration as to the impacts on health, the environment, the rural way of life and no public consultation?

Fracking for unconventional gas and oil is a relatively new technology which is causing much controversy around the world and has been banned or put on hold in many regions.  It is significantly different from fracking for conventional gas & oil reserves, which has been used for the last sixty years. The British Geological Survey has concluded that fracking was the likely cause of the recent earthquakes near Blackpool, and that these earthquakes were between 10-100 times stronger than the usual low-level seismic activity that can normally occur in that area. A recent poll in the Guardian newspaper showed that 68.3% of respondents were opposed to fracking in the UK.

Closing the meeting in Florencecourt Dr O’Dolan said “We don’t know the long term impact that fracking will have on our health and the environment thus the precautionary principle should apply. The Governments should wait for the outcome of the very detailed studies being carried out in the USA & Europe, and both due for release in 2014. The ‘Sure we’ll see how it goes, if it turns out bad we’ll stop’ attitude is too dangerous.”

Enniskillen meeting report

 There were people standing around the edges of the room, in the hallway and spilling out into the car park for Dr Aedin McLoughlin’s presentation at the Clinton Centre on Wednesday 28th September. Dr McLoughlin presented the case for and against shale gas extraction, covering issues including health, quality of life and the effects on the local economy. The aim of the evening was to share information in order to help Fermanagh residents to make an informed decision as whether this gas extraction is welcome in their county. Mr Tom Noble, former Principal of the Erne Integrated College, very ably chaired the meeting, allowing those in attendance to ask questions and share concerns. He ensured that opinions both for and against the process were aired in a respectful manner. Dr Carroll O’Dolan of Florencecourt and Marius Leonard of the Corralea Activity Centre were also on the panel to answer queries.

Some local elected representatives were in the audience and they were called upon by others to “get off the fence” and make their position on the controversial fracking process known. Some were ready to state their views while others said that they would make up their minds when they felt they had all the necessary facts. This was welcomed by other residents, although the urgency of the issue was also emphasised.

The farming community raised issues particularly relevant to them. While leasing their land to the gas exploration companies may seem a lucrative opportunity for farmers, some expressed concerns about the potentially lethal waste that would be left behind and their ultimate responsibility for clearing it. It was also noted with anxiety that the chemical benzene, a petroleum product  found in the flowback fluid coming up from the shale layer, could have a disastrous effect on the local agri-food industry if a leakage occurred. There was also much concern about the fact that planning permission was not required for the laying of gas pipes and that they could be run through any property without the owners’ permission.

Some of the landowners in attendance were very angry that any gas which might be extracted would almost certainly be exported and that very little if any would be used locally, meaning that the local economy would not benefit from lower fuel prices.

Dr O’Dolan was very concerned about the health implications of the process. The precise effects on human and animal health are very difficult to quantify, given that baseline studies are not generally carried out prior to exploration, but it has certainly not been shown that the procedure is safe for people, livestock or wildlife. He suggested we should wait until technology developed further and potential risks were mimimised. After all the gas, if left in the shale layer, is not going anywhere!

The audience was reminded that this process continues to be extremely controversial worldwide, that it is banned in many countries and states, and that pending law suits and protests are ongoing in countries such as the US and Australia where its use is more widespread. In England shale gas extraction has also caused much controversy with recent small earthquakes in Lancashire having been associated with the fracking process in the area. If this were to happen in Fermanagh, people were left to imagine, for example, the impact on the Marble Arch Caves, one of the county’s most important tourist attractions.

The meeting ended with the chairperson reminding those in attendance that the organisers – Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network – were not asking people to say a blanket “no” to shale gas extraction; rather, that they should become informed about the process before they say “yes”.

Further information meetings will be held in Newtownbutler on 4th October and Florencecourt on 26th October. Meetings are also being planned for Derrygonnelly, Garrison and Belleek.