An Associated Press release is making the rounds in various media outlets this morning about well complaints in 4 states that seem to indict fracking as the source of contamination. Here is the article as shared through Yahoo News.
There are a couple items in the article that I want to call attention to:
One, it does not describe how a state defines a “complaint” or how the state compiled the data of these complaints. This may be a matter of semantics, but I want to point to North Carolina: if a private landowner has a well for his/her primary water supply, it is up to the owner to have the quality of the water tested via the health department, and if it tests positive for contaminants, then the local health department will notify the owner of that contaminant. Local Health Departments will keep data from those well water tests, anonymously, and I assume this article is citing such data. Note: Public water supply utilities, which are defined and regulated by the state, are required to publish a Consumer Confidence Report at least once a year to communicate water quality data, and also must issue public notices if their water quality has been compromised.
Two, I agree with Irina Feygina’s statement that…
…comprehensive information about gas drilling problems is important because the debate is no longer about just science but trust.
Regulators must observe data closely for patterns of contamination, and narrow potential sources of contamination from that data set. A private landowner’s well water quality test would not be available to the public, even if it simply states that water quality had been tested (i.e., no results published), but the health department would know where contaminants have been found.
This aspect of public trust in our regulatory agencies certainly raises eyebrows (again) as to why the state of North Carolina turned away grant money to conduct baseline water quality testing in the region likely to be open to hydraulic fracturing. And let restate, I have the utmost respect for the professional staff we have in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DENR does make a great amount of information accessible to the public, most readily available via a searchable map of various permitted activities.
And finally, it is worth noting the percentages of the contaminated wells that appear to point to oil and gas drilling activity as the source of contamination. Based on the information in the article, 4% of complaints in Ohio, 3% in West Virginia and Texas, and 2% in Pennsylvania were linked to fracking (or conventional drilling in Texas). I do not want to disparage anyone who has lost use of their well, but these are not high percentages by any means. The Penn State study cited in the article documents a 40% failure rate of well quality meeting federal standards (though this is poorly defined since the EPA and DHHS/CDC have different minimum contaminant levels for drinking water); I would bet many rural North Carolina landowners would find the same true of their well water. Nonetheless, given the results reported in this AP story, the gas industry must stop saying there has been no contamination in drinking water due to fracking.