Report details fracking's economic toll on local communities

The environmental and health risks of fracking for natural gas -- including contaminated water and polluted air -- have been well-documented.

But the controversial drilling practice that involves injecting water and chemicals into underground rock to release trapped natural gas also comes with a steep price tag for local communities.

Those costs are examined in a new report from Environment America titled "The Cost of Fracking: The Price Tag of Dirty Drilling's Environmental Damage." They range from the expense of supplying clean water to households with contaminated wells to emergency response for highway accidents involving heavy trucks.

"Fracking's environmental damage is bad enough, but it turns out that this dirty drilling imposes heavy dollar and cents costs as well," says John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America Research & Policy Center and a co-author of the report. "And in many cases, the public will be left holding the bag for those costs."

The Environment America report looks at the experience of communities where fracking is taking place to get a sense of the potential costs:

* In Arkansas' Fayetteville Shale region, air pollution from fracking operations imposes health costs estimated to cost $9.8 million annually.

* A 2010 study in Texas found that houses valued at more than $250,000 that were located within 1,000 feet of a well site saw their property values fall by 3 to 14 percent.

* In Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, a 2011 survey of eight counties found a significant increase in 911 calls in seven of them. In one of those counties the calls increased by 49 percent over three years, largely due to trucking accidents.

The report comes as several states and local communities are considering bans or moratoria on fracking. It also offers suggestions for states where fracking is just getting underway, like North Carolina.

In July, N.C. lawmakers lifted the state's ban on fracking in a controversial late-night vote. The newly created state Mining and Energy Commission is now developing recommendations on how to regulate the practice -- including possible impact fees and bonding to cover costs to local communities.

Mayor Darryl Moss of Creedmoor, N.C. -- a community in the central part of the state targeted for shale gas development -- is concerned about the costs of training the local volunteer fire department to handle environmental accidents.

"In terms of trying to figure out how to get them the equipment they need in order to respond to an environment they don't have to respond to today -- we are looking at millions of dollars just on that piece of it alone," Moss says.

Environmental America believes fracking should not be allowed based on the environmental and health costs. That's also the message behind the "Global Frackdown" planned for Saturday, Sept. 22, involving citizens in more than 20 states gathering to call for a ban on the practice and investment in clean energy.

But the report also offers recommendations for holding the gas industry accountable for the local costs it imposes where fracking is permitted, including requiring companies to post bonds to cover costs and imposing fees and other charges.

"Our review of the evidence convinces us that fracking is inherently destructive and costly," says Rumpler. "But if companies like Exxon, Chesapeake, and Halliburton want to assert otherwise, then they should put their money where their mouths are; at a minimum, that means big-time bonds so the public isn't left holding the bag."