Compound fracture.

Fractured: the U.S. body politic, the world economy, U.S. towns, and natural-gas-bearing rock.

On Wednesday, August 4th, the New York Times headlined the story Debt Bill is Signed, Ending a Fractious Battle. It was, supposedly, the climax to a bitterly contested and (as the President suggested) a largely manufactured crisis. Both the Times and its readers might have been forgiven for thinking – or at least hoping – that the story had indeed been laid to rest. But within twenty-four hours, conditions had already started to deteriorate. The Times led off Thursday with a report on how members of both parties in Congress were by this time jockeying for the next phase of the budget fight. A mere two days later, following tumult in global financial markets, and the S&P downgrading of U.S. credit, we now know the story is just entering its next chapter.

Buried in the Times on Thursday – failing to command the attention they might have gotten on a slower news day – were two other stories, about fractures of cities and of rock, that also promise to be ongoing.

The first dealt with the smash-up of cities by natural hazards, and its aftermath. Specifically, the story highlighted arduous process of cleaning up debris following natural disasters such as the swarm of tornadoes that hit Alabama this past spring, and the tornado that tore up Joplin, Missouri just weeks later. Two statistics from that article: The debris from Alabama could be piled 6 feet high on a 24-foot-wide road stretching from New York City to Harrisburg (a sobering picture!…and maybe relating to the fact that much of New York City’s solid waste is now routinely exported to other states such as Pennsylvania). The Joplin debris totaled 2.5 million cubic yards, about half the Alabama figure.

The Joplin debris translates into 250,000-500,000 truckloads carried to a nearby landfill. Of course it’s not that simple. Much of the debris is in large, awkwardly-shaped, heavy chunks, and has to be mashed and ground even further to work it into a form suitable for haulage. And much of that debris is in the form of dangerous or toxic material: propane tanks, appliances, electronic waste, and so on. Some of it contains asbestos. Special handling is the rule. The waste disposal is a logistical nightmare.

Figures for tornadoes – even the major ones such as these – are dwarfed by debris amounts resulting from hurricane landfall. For example, Hurricane Katrina created 100 million cubic yards of debris in Louisiana and Mississippi. And remember, the trends in property loss are rising. These records will likely be broken in coming years.

The second, “A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May be More, involves not only a fractious debate but also fracking, the practice of injecting water and toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to fracture tock and release natural gas it contains. Enormous amounts of natural gas deposits amenable to such extraction methods lie deep underground, at depths well below the depths of most aquifers, across much of the United States. Natural gas is a relatively clean fossil fuel compared with coal and even oil. For a given amount of energy, natural-gas combustion produces less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. The plentiful domestic supply combines with reduced emissions to make a powerful incentive for fracking.

Such potential hinges, however, on the nature of the environmental consequences. To date the argument has been that fracking has been applied to perhaps a million or so wells and no evidence has suggested that the practice pollutes aquifers. [Nor does fracking seem to lead to subsidence or other unwanted effects, although concerns are rising about the sheer amounts of water involved.]

But Thursday’s Times article called this first assumption into question, going back to a case from the 1980’s, where aquifer pollution appears to be an established fact. The industry is pushing back, stating that the fracking was done improperly.

More disturbing? The article hints that more evidence that fracking pollutes aquifers may indeed exist, but remains unavailable for study or discussion because of legal agreements. The article is worth the read…and triggers a feeling of déjà vu…we have the feeling that “we’ve seen this movie before.” Think of the decades-long debate over the health risks of smoking, or the disputes over the impact of acid rain, or the health effects of asbestos, or think literally of the movies like Erin Brockovich. In each of these cases, the problems or unintended consequences of some human activity surfaced belatedly, and solutions were postponed first by uncertainty and then by contentious debate. What’s worrisome therefore is the scale of fracking, and its rapid growth. By the time we do uncover and reach consensus on any shortcomings or problematic aspects, the task of any needed cleanup or retrofit will be enormous indeed.

Between them, these two articles make a point we’ve highlighted in this blog. Dealing successfully with the Earth as resource, victim, and threat means coping with these three aspects simultaneously, locally and globally, and at all times. It’s not enough to cope with one or two of the three aspects in isolation. It’s not sufficient to address one aspect on Mondays, and the other two on Tuesday and Wednesday. So failure to build community resilience to hazards not only makes us vulnerable to the Earth as a threat but also creates (think debris removal) an environmental challenge. And extraction of natural gas from rock will benefit society only to the degree that it doesn’t produce a concomitant environmental problem.

Keep an eye out for news headlines and stories that have at their core the need to balance resource development, environmental protection, and hazard resilience – simultaneously, locally, globally, all the time.

They abound.

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