In what one concerned parent is calling “outrageous,” the Pennsylvania Department of Environment is allowing two eastern Pennsylvania high schools to stage a bizarre boys swim meet this coming Friday—in a swimming pool filled with fracking fluid.
The event is being held to demonstrate the safety of the fluid, a byproduct of the oil and gas extraction method of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking. Some politicians have pulled similar scientifically questionable stunts to reassure the public that fracking fluid is benign. Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO), for example, went so far as to drink a glass of the fluid in 2012.
The swim meet is sponsored by the American Oil and Gas Council, whose member companies believe that fracking could bring 3,500 jobs to the Lehigh Valley alone.
Administrators at Allentown Senior High School and Jefferson High School in Easton are facing a backlash from angry parents who claim they were never notified that the idea was under consideration. “The fluids might be completely safe,” said Sharon Petaluma, a mother of one of the swimmers. “But I feel that we as a community have the right and responsibility to know more about what exactly is in them before we allow our children to swim around in it.”
Most local politicians have stayed silent on the issue. But last week, former Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told his neighbors in New York to “relax” about the potential environmental impacts of fracking (while initially failing to disclose $30,000 in payments from a private equity firm with investments in the oil and gas industry).
A spokesperson for the American Chemical Society expressed cautious reservations about the event. “There is no way this would ever pass muster with one of our review boards,” said society spokesperson Andrew Murphy.
This reminds me of a similar debacle from 2012, when the EPA and the city of Cleveland announced they were setting the Cuyahoga River on fire to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
Boys on the team were encouraged not to shower before entering the water, as researchers from Bausch & Lomb wanted to study the effects of the fluid on adolescent skin. “Initial tests have shown that some oil byproducts condition the hair and remove unwelcome odors,” said company spokesperson Christopher Stinton. “Who knows, we may discover the next Axe Body Spray—which will create jobs right here in Pennsylvania and help put our economy back on track.”
Meanwhile, many parents are livid. “These normally precautionary principals are completely disregarding the precautionary principle,” said Mary Thurst, a former Allentown school board member and parent of two.
“The issue is even causing divisiveness within my team,” complained boys coach Neal Hoffman. “My sprinters are taunting the distance swimmers because they’ll be in the water so much more.”
One administrator suggested that the schools could first stage a game between the schools’ water polo teams to see what happened before exposing the more delicate swimmers to the liquid, a suggestion that was quickly rebuffed.
“Those kids are beasts,” complained sophomore swimmer Jonathan Levi. “What is science going to tell us about them that we don’t already know?”
But the American Oil and Gas Council is undeterred, saying it may stage similar events around the country. “We’re looking at bottling the air around drilling sites and pumping it into hospitals and senior citizen centers,” said council spokesperson Spike O’Dell.
School administrators said they originally suggested following the lead of the State Department and solicit public comments on this controversial issue and then refuse to make the public comments public. But after several parents threatened to sue the two high schools, they decided to hold a community meeting tonight, April 1st, at 7:00 p.m. to attempt to address parents’ concerns.
You’d be a fool if you think that meeting is going to go well.
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