I’m back from Pittsburgh and a talk to the first workshop on green chemistry in a series organized by the Rachel Carson Homestead. I haven’t been to Pittsburgh for some decades and still have badly out-of-date memories of the city with its steel mills and other heavy industry. Instead I found a very clean, imposing modern city and enthusiastic attitude about the future.

But some things never change. The chief topic of conversation at dinner the night before the talk was a massive project to capture natural gas trapped in the coal deposits in the region by fracturing the strata to allow the gas to escape. The process uses large volumes of water containing a mix of chemicals to assist the fracturing process. The spent water and some of the gas escape from the site and run along crevices in the strata and well up in unpredictable places.

Rachel Carson would turn over in her grave at this use of chemicals. I found her environmental ethic still highly relevant.

  • Live in harmony with nature
  • Preserve and learn from natural places
  • Minimize the impact of man-made chemicals on natural systems of the world
  • Consider the implications of human activities on the global web of life.

The scale and impact of this project run smack dab against this ethic. Opponents of the project object, arguing the impact of the process is largely unknown but likely to be significant. The strata have many connections to surface and ground water. My dinner companions reported that contamination is showing up in wells and streams.

The issues I heard are the same as Carson would have heard. The economic value of the projects or chemical usage are more than the ecological costs, including effects of both humans and other species. Development of alternative energy sources is critical. The region is estimated to contain around 60 years of gas supply or less if distributed nationally. Fish are particularly sensitive to pollutants in the water they spawn in. The impacts could last very much longer.

I understand the debate over the project is heating up. The weight of the industry would appear to far outgun the opponents in political and economic terms. But this is exactly the same situation as Carson faced in her battle to ban DDT. With her ghost lingering in the background, the outcome of this battle is far from certain. Tune in later.

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