Response to Criticism on Fracking Story

The following was issued by Elizabeth Royte in response to criticism by Steve Everley, a spokesperson for the industry lobby group Energy in Depth, of her story ”Livestock Falling Ill in Fracking Regions.” His comment appeared after published the condensed version of Royte’s groundbreaking story in The Nation.

Everley states that the “central thesis of the article is that shale development, including hydraulic fracturing, is contaminating the food we eat.” That is an inaccurate summary. The story says that animals in areas where drilling and fracking operations have taken place have fallen ill and/or died after exposure to chemicals linked with those operations. Did the animals die from fracking? No one knows because studies have not been conducted. But it’s certainly worth looking into, considering the pace of oil and gas development in this country, the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations, the prevalence of these operations in regions where animals and plants are grown for human consumption, and the accumulation of circumstantial evidence presented by ranchers who have lost scores of animals in these areas.

Everley did provide material on air emissions studies in Texas and Pennsylvania, but these studies didn’t address the health of livestock and food safety, the subject of this story.

Everley cites the comments of Dr. Ian Rae, who criticized Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, whose analysis of veterinary cases was cited in the story, for lacking a track record in environmental investigations. Oswald is a professor of pharmacology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, has received both Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, and has published scores of articles in numerous peer-reviewed journals. Bamberger is a practicing veterinarian who received her degree from Cornell. Neither has previously published scientific papers on the impact of oil and gas development on animals. Nor has anyone else. This is a new field; the work has to start somewhere. Everley and Rae criticize Bamberger and Oswald for not revealing the names of livestock owners or the dates and places their animals fell ill or died. This is not an unusual practice: the subjects of case studies are routinely kept anonymous in the biomedical literature. The Bamberger Oswald paper received a strict, double-blind peer review; reviewers requested additional information, which was then added to the manuscript.

Everley writes that “activists’ claims about hydraulic fracturing causing cancer and other health problems had little or no basis in fact, much less scientific evidence.” The story does not claim that fracking causes cancer.

Everley writes “claims about impending doom are hyperbolic and, in many cases, flat out untrue.” The story makes no claims about impending doom. It says that scientists and academics are concerned and they are calling for more study. No one can claim food produced near shale-gas operations is either safe or unsafe without asking questions, collecting and examining evidence, testing hypotheses, and analyzing data. As the article makes clear, these studies aren’t being conducted because a) they aren’t funded; b) industry doesn’t reveal all the chemicals used in drilling and fracking; c) complete pre-drilling information on water, air, and soil quality is rarely available; and d) livestock owners are reticent, or outright forbidden by nondisclosure agreements, to speak to investigators.

Elizabeth Royte

About Elizabeth Royte

Elizabeth Royte is a Contributing Editor to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash; Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It; and The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, and has written on environmental issues for The New York Times magazine, National Geographic, Harper’s, Outside, and other magazines. Royte is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor for OnEarth magazine. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing for 2004 and for 2009, the environmental omnibus Naked, and Outside Magazine’s Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison. A former Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, she is the recipient of Bard College’s John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service.
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