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Deadly Insurgents With Ties To U.S. Dollars

The Haqqani Network operates in eastern Afghanistan, where it carries out bombings and kidnappings. It was also blamed for the recent bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti says the network finances its activities partially through extortion money it receives from U.S.-funded contractors in Afghanistan.


Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2011: Interview with Mark Mazetti; Interview with Abrahm Lustgarten.








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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you combine the traits of a terrorist movement and a crime family, you get the Haqqani Network. They're from Afghanistan and hide out in Pakistan's frontier territory on the border. The Haqqanis were behind the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the retiring head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqanis planned and conducted that attack with the support of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI. That comment outraged Pakistani officials.

White House and State Department officials have tried to tone down Admiral Mullen's assessment and have expressed their concern about the fraying relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.

My guest, Mark Mazzetti, covers national security for the New York Times. He was part of the team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: So you've compared the Haqqani Network to the Sopranos, but it's as if they Sopranos were also an Islamist terrorist group with a militia and connections to the intelligence agency. Now Admiral Mike Mullen says that this network is a virtual arm of Pakistan's intelligence agency. Recap for us, what Admiral Mullen said and why it's creating such an uproar.

MAZZETTI: Specifically he was talking about Pakistan's military and ISI, which is their military intelligence service. And basically what he said was that, in effect, Pakistan, the United States's ally, took part, in a way, in an attack against the U.S. embassy and a number of other high-profile attacks around Kabul.

The Haqqani Network, which has been blamed for, sort of, a ruthless campaign of violence, it has been long-known that they do have some ties to the ISI, but what Mullen did was, sort of, take it to a new level and accuse Pakistan of using the Haqqanis to carry out Pakistan's policies.

GROSS: So if it's true, as Admiral Mullen says, that Pakistan's intelligence service has actually done things in support of the Haqqani Network and assisted it, what might the ISI's motives be in working with this criminal terrorist syndicate?

MAZZETTI: The motives of the ISI, the United States has been trying to discern for a decade or more. Sometimes they are very opaque. If it is true, what Admiral Mullen said, some people I've spoken to have said well, you know, maybe Pakistan is trying to accelerate the American departure from Afghanistan. That the more attacks against the embassy and other places that take place, the more the American public will get fed up with the war and want to get out even sooner.

And the sooner the United States gets out, the more Pakistan can then pull the levers of a future Afghanistan state. Again, that's a theory, but it is one way to explain why Pakistan would throw its support behind a group like this.

GROSS: So the Haqqani Network would help push the United States out, theoretically, make Afghanistan seem like a hopeless cause, and also the Haqqani Network can then be an ally of Pakistan after the U.S. leaves. Is that the scenario? Is that the thinking?

MAZZETTI: Exactly right.

GROSS: OK, now the United States gives Pakistan a lot of money, and a lot of the money the U.S. gives Pakistan I think ends up with Pakistan's intelligence service. So does that mean that we are actually funding the intelligence service which is trying to undermine our efforts in Afghanistan?

MAZZETTI: Well, the United States, as you said, has given billions of dollars to Pakistan over the last decade. A lot of the money, covert money, has gone to help the ISI, help the military with its own counterterrorism, counterinsurgency operations. And if you believe that the ISI does give financial support to groups like the Haqqanis and the Taliban, then you can very clearly draw a line that American money is going to these groups that are now killing American troops.

It is - again, there's accumulated evidence about the support between the ISI and the Taliban and the Haqqanis, but American officials are still trying to discern exactly, you know, how this relationship works and whether people like General Kayani and General Pasha, who are respectively the head of the military and the ISI, are blessing this from the top. Whether this is an actual policy of the Pakistani government or whether it's just parts of the ISI that are doing it.

I think, still, after 10 years of war, we don't know.

GROSS: I think what a question on my mind is: Is the Pakistan government cooperating with the Haqqani Network and supporting it to some degree for pragmatic reasons, just to kind of prevent the Haqqani Network from attacking Pakistan, to kind of like quiet them down a little bit when it comes to Pakistan? Or, are they in collusion on attacks because Pakistan wants those attacks to happen, too?

MAZZETTI: All of the above could be true. But I think we have to go back to the history a little bit, about why Pakistan would spend any time with this group or have any contacts whatsoever. It's well-known that in the 1980s both the ISI and the CIA worked with both the Haqqanis and other militia groups in Afghanistan to drive the Russians - to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

Since that time, Pakistan has seen groups like the Haqqanis as, in a way, proxy forces, as ways that would allow Pakistan not to station large amounts of troops in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, and instead, station them where Pakistan considers to be more important, which would be along the Indian border.

So Pakistan is much smaller than India, has a much smaller army. So if you're a Pakistani general, you might see a group like the Haqqanis as a pretty critical instrument of policy. You would also want to keep them, as you said, in line so they are not turning their attacks east towards Pakistan. That would be a great concern.

The expectation is that once, you know, the U.S. really clearly starts moving out, this is when all the negotiation and the horse-trading happens, and everyone's going to want to carve out their areas, and what the Haqqanis will want to have is an area in eastern Afghanistan that allows them to keep up their criminal enterprises, and some of that bleeds over into Pakistan.

And maybe - and again this is to some degree speculation on the Americans' part - but some people see that Pakistan wants to use the Haqqanis for the future, that - who could represent, to some degree, some of the interests that Pakistan has for the future of Afghanistan after the United States leaves.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about what the Haqqani Network is, and then we'll get back to what the larger implications are. To give a sense of the ruthless tactics that the Haqqani Network uses, let's talk about their attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, in June.

More than a dozen people were killed - and you write about this in a recent article - last month, Afghanistan's national intelligence directorate released recordings of phone calls that were intercepted during the attack. And in these exchanges, the Haqqani Network leaders in Pakistan instruct their operative in the hotel to shoot the locks off rooms, throw in grenades and make sure no one escapes.

Would you read the dialog that you reprint in your article?

MAZZETTI: Yes, in our story Sunday, we go on to say: Later, as the fire blazes, the recordings capture the voice of Badruddin Haqqani, one of Jalaluddin's sons, whom the State Department says is in charge of kidnapping for the network. On the tape, Mr. Haqqani asks, quote, "how is the fire?" A militant named Omar replies: It's a big fire, and the smoke is blinding me.

Omar says he will not be able to move away from the fire, and Mr. Haqqani asks if he has bullets. Quote, yes, I have a lot of ammunition, Omar says. God willing, I'm very relaxed, lying on this mattress, waiting for them. Mr. Haqqani laughs and says: God will give you victory.

GROSS: My assumption is that Omar is prepared to die in the flames because he can't move away from them.

MAZZETTI: That's right, and one of the MOs of Haqqani Network attacks is that they tend to be suicide attacks, where many of the operatives end up losing their own lives.

GROSS: So it's amazing to actually hear the dialog from that. Thanks for reading it. What was their goal in killing people at this hotel in June?

MAZZETTI: You know, it's hard to know what exactly their goal is in that attack or on the attack on the American embassy or a number of other attacks. It's people's best guess, though, that what they are ultimately looking for is recognition, some degree of acknowledgement that they are here to stay and that they need to be dealt with for the future, they cannot be dismissed.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We're talking about the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group from Afghanistan which has found safe haven in Pakistan.

Their empire is, in part, a crime empire. And I think one of the most outrageous parts of the crime empire for Americans is that they've gotten a lot of protection money from contractors who are building roads and schools with American reconstruction money, which means what, that American reconstruction money, a lot of that is actually going to the Haqqani Network, this terrorist network, that is our enemy.

MAZZETTI: That's right. It's sort of an elaborate shakedown scheme in Mafia fashion, where the American money goes to all sorts of construction projects in Eastern Afghanistan, and the only way those roads and schools are not bombed is if the Haqqani Network guarantees that they will not be bombed, and the only way they guarantee it is if they get paid.

So you can look at it as American taxpayer money ultimately going into the pockets of the Haqqani Network.

GROSS: And what do they use the money for?

MAZZETTI: Well, they use the money to build up other aspects of their enterprise. Many observers have looked at it as them building a mini-state in Pakistan where they can build quasi-government offices, they can build their own madrases, they can help finance other attacks. So most of the money, it is believed, from these shakedowns ultimately get funneled back to Pakistan, to Miranshah, where the Haqqani Network is based.

Miranshah, which is a fairly large town in North Waziristan, is Haqqani Network Central, and central headquarters for a lot of other groups, but it's a place that - and the Pakistan government's there. The military has bases, but they are largely confined to their bases. It is really run by the militants.

And the Haqqanis to some degree are the biggest players in town. They are the richest players in town. They are hosts to other militants who come through looking to carry out attacks elsewhere. They put them up in sort of quasi-hostels, and they are the innkeepers for these groups. So they run the show in Miranshah, and from there, their empire spreads south in the tribal areas and west into primarily three provinces of eastern Afghanistan - Khost Province, Paktia Province and Paktika Province.

GROSS: So they really control a lot of the border territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MAZZETTI: That's right. To the extent that there is, you know, even a border, which there really isn't, they run the show, and they're able to deforest parts of eastern Afghanistan and take the lumber and bring it back and sell it in Pakistan. They are able to steal precious gems, and again, bring them back over the border.

So it's their territory, and part of the problem is that, you know, the United States in Afghanistan, since the beginning, has tried to deploy its forces where they see they are most needed, and there have never been - there's never been a large American military contingent in eastern Afghanistan. And even with the surge over the last year and a half, most of the surge troops have gone to southern Afghanistan, where the - what's called the Pashtun Belt in the south, where the Taliban are centered.

There has not been - there's not been an increase in the American forces in the east, and that's allowed the Haqqanis, really, over the last five years, to thrive.

GROSS: So how does the front companies that they run, the smuggling that they do, the ransoms that they get from kidnapping, how does that coincide with their theology? And they are Islamist in theology. And I don't mean Islamic. I mean Islamist like extremist, Islamic-state-oriented...

MAZZETTI: That's right. It's sometimes hard to reconcile that they are - you know, they are the Sopranos or the Gambino crime family, and yet they are devout Islamists, especially the younger generation. Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was the asset of the CIA in the 1980s, is still alive; however, most people think he is more of a fringe figure now, and the sons have really taken over the operation and that the sons are even more devout than the father.

So it is sort of hard to reconcile that on the one hand, they are doing this sort of petty crime activity, and on the other hand, they run this network of madrases, schools in Pakistan, that are churning out these very devout fighters, and which makes them such a unique group in this very complicated war.

GROSS: So the father, Jalaluddin, he was one of the, you know, fighters, one of the mujahedeen, in the '80s, in Afghanistan, when Afghanistan was fighting against the Soviet invasion. The United States armed him then. He was considered to be a great ally of ours. What did Ronald Reagan have to say about him?

MAZZETTI: Well, Ronald Reagan characterized the mujahedeen as - as we know, freedom fighters and brought many of them into the White House to thank them. And this was all part of a covert CIA and ISI operation to drive the Soviets out. Charlie Wilson, the famous Texas Congressman who made the mujahedeen his cause, called Jalaluddin Haqqani goodness personified. So that is obviously a case of a very good ally, at one point, who turns to be a very, very bitter enemy years later.

GROSS: Now, when you hear American leaders, whether - you know, it's the president or people in Congress talk about Afghanistan, they talk about the Taliban, they talk about al-Qaeda. You very rarely hear them talk about the Haqqani Network. Why is that if the Haqqani Network is so important? And on the same lines, what's the Haqqani Network's relationship with the Taliban and al-Qaeda? Are they - do they share the same goals, or do they see themselves as rivals?

MAZZETTI: It's a good question. They - the Haqqanis have allied themselves with the Taliban for years. Jalaluddin Haqqani pledged his support in his alliance with Mullah Omar, who is the head of the Taliban. So they are certainly allied. And there's sort of a difference of opinion in the U.S. government about exactly just whether they can be convinced to go in a different direction, in other words whether the Haqqani Network can be broken off from the Taliban and sort of dealt with differently.

And that's really something of a matter of dispute right now. They have some goals. The United States for some time has lumped in the Haqqani Network with the Taliban in part because it's sort of easier to lump an enemy together and say that's who you're fighting. But they're to some degree separate groups because they're in separate territory.

And so as the United States tries to figure out an endgame in Afghanistan, the question is can the Haqqani Network be dealt with in a way that's different from the Taliban? Can they negotiate with the Haqqani Network while they're fighting the Taliban? That's actually under consideration.

And a year ago, the United States was trying to figure out whether to put the Haqqani Network on a list of international terrorist organizations, and the decision was no, they shouldn't do that because if you designate a whole group as terrorists, then you're basically cutting off all possibility of talking to them. You're branding them an enemy.

And so the decision in the Obama administration was let's not do that. Let's just brand individuals guys terrorist but not a whole network.

GROSS: Now Admiral Mike Mullen, this week - the retiring head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the things he said was - this was in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week. He said that he thinks that the partnership approach that he's long championed with Pakistan is going to be difficult to revive. He said, quote, I am losing people, and I'm just not going to stand for that. I've been Pakistan's best friend. What does it say when I'm at this point? What does it say about where we are?

He seems very pessimistic about the U.S. having, you know, a partnership with Pakistan in resolving the situation in that region. Do you think that his pessimism is shared by a lot of other people in the Pentagon?

MAZZETTI: I think that it is, and some in the Pentagon think that Mullen is just finally coming around to the realization of - you know, to the truth. I mean, Mullen's testimony last week was so fascinating because here's a guy who has devoted more than any other U.S. official time and energy to making this relationship work.

He's taken countless trips to Islamabad to speak with his counterpart, General Kayani, who is the head of the Pakistani military. And he said time and time again that this is a relationship that we need and that the Pakistanis can be convinced to, quote, change their behavior, that we can - you know, we the U.S. can bring them around.

So here is a guy who, at the end of his military service, was looking back on this effort, and he doesn't see much from it, and he's very angry about it. Now, the - as I said, there are many in the military, especially people who have been commanders on the ground, who have watched their soldiers die at the hands of the Haqqani Network, and they say, well, what took him so long, right.

Why has it taken so long for the U.S. to get tough on the Haqqanis? So this anger and frustration actually has been building up, especially in the ranks of the military, for some time. And now Admiral Mullen comes out and says it, and that's a real sign that the U.S. government is to some degree at the end of its rope about what to do about this.

GROSS: My impression too is that there are a lot of people in the Pentagon who are very angry at Mullen for saying this publicly and are saying that he overstated the problem with Pakistan.

MAZZETTI: It's more there is anger outside of the Pentagon in other parts of the government. Definitely you hear from intelligence officials and from State Department officials and from White House officials that they thought Mullen went further than what the intelligence suggests, specifically about the attack on the American embassy but also calling them, you know, a virtual arm of the ISI, went beyond what the U.S. really knows about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the ISI.

They at the same time say, well, Mullen's on his way out, it's easy for him to tee off on the Pakistanis. We've got to deal with them, and this is the worst thing for the relationship is the Pakistanis accused essentially of trying to blow up the American embassy in Kabul.

So Mullen's on his way out the door, but for the future, this relationship is poisoned.

GROSS: Mark Mazzetti will be back in the second half of the show. He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. We're talking about the Afghan terrorist group the Haqqani Network that has found safe haven in Pakistan, and the increasing tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Haqqani Network has acted as a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence agency.

Well, you know, some people are saying that because Pakistan is becoming so alienated by the United States that Pakistan might be trying to turn to China as an ally. And an example of that you wrote about is that Pakistan showed China a Black Hawk helicopter that was downed during the raid on bin Laden's compound. And I mean, the technology within this should really be a secret and China should not have access to it, but Pakistan gave China access to it. So what's your interpretation of what it means that Pakistan may be trying to, you know, woo China as an ally?

MAZZETTI: Since the bin Laden raid, senior Pakistani officials have in not-so-subtle moves tried to tell the United States or send messages to the United States that, you know, the U.S. isn't the only game in town, that Pakistan can go elsewhere for friends. I think it was within a week of the bin Laden raid, senior Pakistani officials traveled to Beijing and called Beijing's government, the Chinese government, a, quote, "all-weather friend," as opposed to presumably the fair weather friend that the U.S. is and basically said, you know, we can develop close ties with China. We may allow the Chinese to build a naval base along the Pakistani coast. And now, of course, Pakistan and China, their relationship goes way back. However, clearly Pakistan is looking past the United States and looking for other partners and the most obvious partners for Pakistan would be Saudi Arabia and the Chinese.

Now, the question is, of course, you know, do the Chinese want to reciprocate? Do the Chinese want to bring Pakistan into the fold and have a close relationship to the extent that the U.S. has with Pakistan over the last decade? There's a lot of headaches with the relationship? And there are signs - and China experts that I talked to say, you know, don't be so certain that China wants to take on that headache. But there's no question that Pakistan is trying to, in short, look for other friends.

GROSS: Because Pakistan is a nuclear power and has such importance because it has nuclear weapons, you always wonder how safe are those weapons, who has access to them. If it's true that the intelligence service has connections with a terrorist group like the Haqqani Network, does that mean that the Haqqani Network is like really close to the nuclear weapons, that they might conceivably have access to it? Or even, you know, does the ISI have - the Intelligence Service - do they have access to the nuclear weapons? Does anybody know?

MAZZETTI: I would be skeptical that the Haqqanis would have any direct access to nuclear weapons or even a great influence over the use of the weapons. I mean the nuclear weapons of Pakistan are, they really are the crown jewels. They are what safeguard Pakistan's security, especially, again, with relationship to India. And Pakistan's military guards them closely and they, you know, they move them around because they are worried about militants gaining access to them.

Now, the United States is concerned about, you know, growing militancy within the Pakistani military and that ultimately there could be more influence by groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Networks over the sort of nuclear procedures. But I don't get a sense from people in Washington that that is an immediate concern. Certainly it is the greatest worry for the U.S., that the nuclear arms would get at the hands of militants, and it is always a point of discussion between the U.S. and Pakistan. But I don't think that it's foremost on their minds like - as if this could happen immediately.

GROSS: So anti-American sentiment seems if anything to be growing a bit in Pakistan. Why is that?

MAZZETTI: The number one conspiracy theory in Pakistan is that ultimately the Americans' goal is to take the nukes, that we have designs to ultimately take the nuclear weapons out of the hands of Pakistan's government because of concerns about, that they might fall into the hands of militants. So - so many of the conspiracies on the street in Pakistan sort of go back to that. So why is Raymond Davis running around Lahore? Why are all these CIA people running around Pakistan?

Well, ultimately they want to take the nukes. And so that is what's fueled so much of this anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, that plus to some degree the drone program. So as long as the U.S. is maintaining a presence in Pakistan, an intelligence presence and also with the drone strikes, I think you'll continue to see these conspiracy theories and you're going to continue to see a great amount of anti-American sentiment that really hamstrings the government of Pakistan from looking like it's too close to the U.S. So Islamabad's government is limited in its own way from making nice with the U.S.

GROSS: Is there anybody among your sources in the Pentagon or sources in the State Department or the White House who truly believe that if we stayed longer in Afghanistan that we could turn around the state and really make it, you know, a safer, more democratic place that would really function as a state?

MAZZETTI: No one I talked to believes some of the things that people believed 10 years ago when they were wondering what was possible, a very Democratic state, as you said, a state modeled after a Western democracy. No one thinks that's really possible. I think that, again, the best that people are hoping for is a somewhat functional government that can control its borders and from the U.S. perspective basically keep groups like al-Qaida out of its territory and prevent another safe haven like there was before 9/11. So the expectations are a lot lower.

I think there's also resignation to some degree over exactly how Pakistan operates. You know, you would hear a couple of years ago that, you know, the United States was very eager to get Pakistan to cut its ties to militants, to, quote, "change its behavior," that, you know, maybe, you know, Pakistan could be turned around in America's minds. You don't hear that anymore. You hear to some degree a much more sort of sober assessment about how, well, the U.S. is leaving so, you know, why would Pakistan change its behavior? They've got to live in this area. You know, if they're going to keep up ties to groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, well, that's their business. I just don't get a sense of optimism that as much cajoling as the United States has done and may continue to do, that it's had much effect.

GROSS: Well, Mark Mazzetti, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And I want to wish you good luck, because I know you're about to begin a leave of absence from your position as a national correspondent for The New York Times to take a leave and write a book. So I look forward to reading the book and I wish you good luck in writing it.

MAZZETTI: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: You'll find links to Mark Mazzetti's recent New York Times articles on our website,











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TERRY GROSS, host: As natural gas drilling expands across the country, thousands of wells are appearing in rural and suburban areas. Our guest, investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, says some neighbors of those wells are reporting serious illnesses affecting themselves as well as their livestock and pets. For years, Lustgarten has been writing about the oil and gas industries for the investigative nonprofit ProPublica. He won a 2009 George Polk Award for his stories on the impact of hydraulic fracturing or fracking - the process in which pressurized water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground to break up a rock and release natural gas.

In a recent investigative piece, Lustgarten and co-author Nicholas Kusnetz, reports that it's hard to establish a clear connection between gas drilling and health problems in part because of weak regulation of the industry. Abrahm Lustgarten talked about the issue with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's just begin by talking about a particular case. There's a woman that you write about in Western Colorado, Susan Wallace-Babb, and had a disturbing experience. What happened to her?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, it was a late spring day in June 2005, and Susan lives in a town of Parachute, Colorado, which is right in the heart of a lot of Colorado's most intensive natural gas development. And one evening after a couple weeks of increasing sort of sensitivity and headaches and some other medical symptoms she'd been experiencing, she went out into a neighbor's field to close off an irrigation ditch, really some routine physical work. She drove her truck down the road into this field and it goes past a little bit, it goes past a gas well and a couple storage tanks for what they call condensate fuel that comes out of those tanks, and stepped out of her truck and felt woozy and immediately passed out, grabbed on to the door of the truck and kind of collapsed there for a couple minutes or so.

It began a period of very intense negative health effects for her. By the next morning she felt intense nerve pain in her legs, intense headaches, nausea, and eventually within a couple of days had skin rashes over her body, which eventually turned into legions and open sores and her health got progressively worse from that point on.

DAVIES: She believes this is the result of drilling?

LUSTGARTEN: She does now. It took some time. She originally filed a complaint with the Colorado state officials and didn't receive a reply. And it wasn't until she began talking with other residents of this part of Colorado, of Garfield County, Colorado and learning that others had similar experiences, and then she began talking more in public meetings about her own experiences and talking with doctors who had a little bit more expertise in gas fueled exposure, and she did come to believe that though it's difficult to prove, or not yet proven, that her health issues have been caused by exposure to some sort of chemical in the drilling fields.

DAVIES: She wrote a comment on the website, which carried your piece, and she pointed out there was a discussion about the effects on animals. And she said that the level of toxins in the air where she lives, she believes, caused her horses' hooves to come apart, her barn cat to urinate blood, and her chickens to die for no apparent reason. Are livestock deaths among those complaints which you've discovered in looking into this issue?

LUSTGARTEN: Very much so. And again, both unstudied, unrecorded and difficult to prove, but prevalent in each of the places that I've reported, and that means in, you know, in Texas, in Louisiana, and in Colorado and in Pennsylvania you hear similar complaints. In the part of Colorado where Susan Wallace-Babb lived, I interviewed years ago a veterinarian who described many of her clients - the owners of the animals that she treated, complaining of symptoms ranging from, I don't know if you could call that symptoms, but birth defects and stillbirths and sick or sterile animals or goats that wouldn't produce milk and so on. Animals probably are more sensitive to these sorts of environmental exposures or alleged environmental exposures, and stories of their demise in illness are extremely prevalent.

DAVIES: Well, maybe this is a point at which we could talk a little bit about how the drilling operation might produce some ill health effects. I mean we think of drilling as being an operation in which there's - you know, a drill goes deep into the ground, they get this material, it's brought up to the surface and one would think it would be kind of a contained loop, the gas goes into tanks and is sent away to produce energy. Why are there tanks of liquid? What is the process that might produce some of these health issues?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, there's a number of potential sources for contaminants which could theoretically result in some health issues, and one is these tanks. The drilling, as you described, and it happens underground, there is an injection of drilling fluids and hydraulic fracturing fluids and eventually a lot of those fluids are withdrawn and have to be disposed of, which is one potential risk area.

Along with the natural gas also there is gas which comes out in the form of liquid and that's what in this case was filling those tanks, which are called condensate tanks. Generally this is just one of many byproducts or products of the drilling process. And any of these chemicals that are hydrocarbon-based, which are essentially a fuel source that are on site, there's a risk of them being spilled or there are fumes emitting into the air or an accident as they're trucked away from site or piped away from the site. And each of those are potential points of exposure to humans.

DAVIES: Now, in your piece you describe a number of cases like hers, which are disturbing examples of people near gas drilling operations who have these in some cases very debilitating health effects and in many cases effects on livestock. How common are health complaints from gas drilling operations?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, answering that question is the fundamental problem or frustration that we ran into and that many health officials have run into. Anecdotally, I can tell you from my reporting on this issue since 2008, I hear these concerns and complaints frequently. I hear them in places that are thousands of miles apart in various states. And to me, to an untrained nonmedical professional, they sound alarmingly similar, and that's what drew us into the story. But we go to federal or state health officials or drilling officials or any official, for that matter, and ask that question, how common these are, which essentially means how many cases are there per, you know, per defined segment of the population, nobody really knows.

Nobody has systematically tracked how many health complaints there are, whether the complaints are similar, whether they can be tied to any specific chemical exposure or other specific environmental cause, and it makes it very difficult beyond just an anecdotal answer to get a handle on how widespread a problem this might be.

DAVIES: And the absence of hard information would make it hard to attach any liability, of course.

LUSTGARTEN: Absolutely.

DAVIES: So what kind of information is needed to make some real scientific assessment of the risks and harm from, you know, fracking and gas drilling?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, there's a couple pieces of the puzzle. You have to establish what epidemiologists call the pathway, the exposure pathway. So you have to establish that there is a pollutant to be exposed to, that there is a risk to being exposed to that pollutant, and then finally that people actually were exposed to that pollutant. And this is the - kind of a final elusive step. And this to investigate scientifically just requires an enormous effort and a detailed study that would involve, for example, maybe a control population of people that aren't exposed to any sort of drilling and then people that are and then watching them over time and measuring exactly what air pollutants appear in the air and then testing for those in people's bloodstreams, or otherwise trying to definitively conclude that the specific contaminants from a specific source are the same ones that are making people sick.

DAVIES: All right. So to establish connections between chemical releases and health effects, you first need these two big sets of data. You need actual measurements of what the chemicals are being released into the air and water, and then you need a dataset of health effects. And I noticed you said that this was ordered in Pennsylvania but hasn't yet happened. As one of the things that we discern in reading your reading is - reading your material - is that it's largely state governments that are collecting all this information, or in some cases not collecting it. And I guess that's because the industry itself got some exemptions from federal law, right? Reminds us of that.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. Well, to take a step back, drilling in general is regulated mostly at the state level. There are exemptions, key exemptions from federal regulations from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which in the case of the fluids injected underground allows those chemicals not to be - the wells themselves, the hydraulics fracturing process, not to be regulated as a form of underground injection. There are similar exemptions from almost every major environmental statute, including those that would require disclosure of pollutants in the form of a toxic release inventory, exemptions under the Clean Air Act and also the Clean Water Act.

That makes it extremely difficult for federal officials to step in where they have a defined but somewhat limited role, and the rest of the drilling activity is generally regulated on a state-by-state basis. When it comes to health oversight, however, there isn't such a clear division of authority. There just hasn't been a lot of effort paid at all on either the state or the federal levels to looking at health issues as they pertain to oil and gas drilling both, or to any of these complaints that are what federal health officials would describe as less serious, for example, than cancer clusters or looking at, you know, leukemia rates in an area where there was a known chemical spill or things like that which are much easier for them to grasp onto and then study.

DAVIES: State governments, of course, have an interest in protecting their citizens, and some states have had more experience with gas drilling than others, some of them it's relatively new. How are they doing at dealing with these issues, either monitoring emissions or health effects?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, it's a little difficult to know. It makes it look like they're not doing particularly well. On the latter part of that question, the collection of data about environmental contamination states are progressing. There's been a lot more work done in the last couple of years to start, for example, taking air quality measurements, looking at what contaminants might be in polluted air both in Garfield County, Colorado, in parts of Texas, even in Pennsylvania. That step towards collecting environmental data is really important and that has really begun to take place, especially since complaints began to emerge in drilling areas over the last couple of years and over the last decade.

The second half of that, the part about health concerns is where we really ran into a wall in our reporting. We would talk to health departments, like the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and hear that as it pertained to drilling issues, all of those complaints were deferred over to the Oil and Gas Commission or the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The commission would say, well, we regulate drilling procedures. We do protect the environment but we don't really have a mechanism or the expertise to consider, you know, human health exposure or what happens from a medical standpoint. And in that gap all of these complaints seem to fall through and there isn't really a mechanism yet that we heard about for either combining efforts between those departments or perhaps creating some sort of new agency or inter-agency department that would address them, so they really kind of go unattended.

DAVIES: And so drilling regulators aren't used to thinking about health issues, the health departments have their own issues, not to mention budget constraints, so nobody really jumps on it.


DAVIES: We're speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten from the investigative outfit ProPublica. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Abrahm Lustgarten. He is an investigative reporter for ProPublica who has been studying natural gas drilling. He has a recent piece about potential health issues from the industry.

What does, I mean the industry deals with these issues. I mean they talk to people, like they talk to you and others like you, who have, you know, been contacted by folks who've suffered health effects. What do they say about cases like Susan Wallace-Babb in Colorado?

LUSTGARTEN: To be clear, none of the companies that we called for this story agreed to comment and none would engage in a conversation. In general, the companies tend to be dismissive of individual complaints while expressing an understandable need for further research and concern for the health of individuals but really kind of shying away from any kind of connection or presumed connection with their own activities.

You won't hear the drilling industry say this isn't an issue and we don't have to go out and study this. You won't hear them say that they don't care about Susan Wallace-Babb. But you will hear them say Susan Wallace-Babb appears to not like the industry and, you know, maybe she has health issues or maybe she is annoyed with the industry and wants it to leave Garfield County, Colorado. And by the way, we need to do a whole lot more research and we support that research, but it's a, you know, it's a decade-long effort and let's just get started and not really talk about blame at this point but let's spend some time doing some research.

DAVIES: What difference would it make if the exemptions from federal law that the industry now has were removed?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, I think it would fill out the dataset, the amount of information that we have available on one half of the equation that we talked about before, and that's understanding exactly what kind of environmental pollution we are dealing with. For one example, folks at - Chris Portier - the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, said that a lack of knowledge about what specific chemicals are used in drilling has made it really difficult for health officials, his agency and local agencies, to not only understand whether residents have been exposed to these chemicals, but to even do kind of preliminary work to understand what the health effects might be from exposure to some of these chemicals. Many of them are unknown. They're unstudied. They've been invented by industry and are not yet listed by the EPA or any other agency and there's a real lack of information.

You see on the operational side a lack of disclosure of what these chemicals are. In the case of these drilling chemicals, the companies don't disclose them, claiming that they're trade secrets, that it would affect their competitive advantage with other drilling companies. But the result is that communities don't know and regulators don't know exactly what's being pumped into the ground, so health officials don't know exactly what residents who complain of health effects are actually being exposed to. That lack of disclosure isn't actually an exemption, it's just a long-standing kind of loophole or gap in the regulations, but it's one clear example of how it limits health officials.

DAVIES: Now, some states have begun to enact laws and regulations which require disclosure of some fracking chemicals, haven't they?

LUSTGARTEN: They have. Disclosure generally has improved greatly in the three years that I've been reporting on this subject. The leader is the state of Wyoming, which last year passed the first law requiring disclosure of chemicals injected underground. New York is set to follow. And there's to various degrees disclosure required with some limitations or caveats in Pennsylvania and Colorado and elsewhere.

In no case are these complete. Even in the state of Wyoming, which has the very clear and definitive law, they're allowing exemptions for certain companies and certain chemicals, depending on various circumstances as they're presented by the industry. The result is that there are still dozens, perhaps hundreds of chemicals being used in the state of Wyoming that still are not disclosed. And from a public health or a scientific perspective, all it takes is one of those chemicals to not be disclosed to make their work just a little bit harder, because it's impossible to know whether that might be the one active ingredient, so to speak, that's causing problems.

DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Abrahm Lustgarten spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Lustgarten reports for the nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica. You'll find links to his articles about fracking on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.





Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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