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Fracking is bad

And the West had better watch its water



Last week, national intelligence agencies released the unclassified version of a report which predicts that nations and regions will increasingly go to war over water as global warming, population and consumption continue to grow. Living in a headwaters state, Montanans know well just how precious the abundant clean waters flowing from our mountains and unsullied wilderness areas are to our economy, lifestyles and health. Increasingly, however, it appears that what will really count in the future will not be simply water quantity, but water quality. And in that regard, Montana, even with its headwaters location, is not immune from threat.

Front and center in any discussion of water these days are the impacts from the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" now taking place on a massive scale across Montana and the nation. Despite industry assurances that the process is safe, almost daily new studies are debunking the safety of fracking and documenting the serious groundwater problems that are increasingly occurring. At issue are both the known and unknown chemical constituents of some 750 compounds now being forced underground at almost unimaginable pressures to shatter rock and release hydrocarbons.

Here in Montana, the economic frenzy over developing the Bakken formation is a driving force behind calls by politicians from both parties for "streamlined" permitting, "cutting red tape" and reducing "hurdles" to energy development. Those are all long overused political weasel words that mean nothing more than reduced regulation of corporate interests hidden behind the endless "jobs" mantra. But what they portend is serious, perhaps incurable, pollution that will far outlast the current energy boom and plague generations to come.

Unfortunately, Montanans have been down this long and ugly road before and, if current indicators are accurate, we're about to get another environmental drubbing from the 2013 legislature when they hit the capitol in less than a year. For those who think otherwise, perhaps a quick look at what the Idaho legislature has just done may give pause for thought.

Despite opposition from the vast majority of those who testified in both its House and Senate hearings, the Idaho legislature passed and Governor Butch Otter recently signed into law HB 464, which assures the oil and gas industry that counties will not be able to adopt ordinances to protect their groundwater from fracking-caused pollution. The measure was steamrolled through the Republican-controlled legislature even though many of those testifying identified themselves as Republicans while pointing out the blatant hypocrisy that Idaho is willing to fight federal government intrusion on states' rights, but has no problem enacting a law to force state intrusion on cities' and counties' rights. It's probably a good wager that we will be seeing similar legislation in Montana next year.

Fracking, while the front and center issue of the day, is unfortunately not the only major threat to the precious and dwindling groundwater upon which we all rely. In the last few years, studies have been conducted in the Bozeman-Gallatin Valley, the Helena Valley and the Missoula Valley to look at contamination of both private and public water wells. The results have been, in a word, shocking.

In virtually every case, scientists detected more than 28 industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, pesticides and even insect repellant in the groundwater in everyday use at homes, businesses and eateries. The chemicals come from a variety of sources, including agricultural practices, people flushing and excreting pharmaceuticals down the toilet and municipal runoff.

When the results were first released, we were given the usual pacifier that many of the chemicals were only detectable in very small amounts. Yet, in the case of the Helena Valley studies, researchers said that even in those minute proportions, the health effects of certain chemicals were virtually unknown.

This week, however, those effects were more fully explained when a team of scientists published a report titled "Hormones and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses." Based on reviews of 800 studies, researchers found that it's "remarkably common" for even very minute concentrations of hormone-disrupting chemicals to have significant effects on human health—not to mention that of the rest of the ecosystem's inhabitants.

The more we look, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more obvious it is that industry has lied to us to serve its profit motives. The imperative to keep our precious water clean rather than hope for some miracle cure to restore it after it's polluted is now before us. Instead of making it easier to pollute our water, we should be treating every watershed as the precious resource it is. Our water wars are here now—and clean water is well worth the fight.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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