Tag Archives: water contamination from fracking

Well contamination complaints point to fracking in 4 states: 3 thoughts

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.


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“Fracking wastewater contaminated – likely with radioactive material”

A study in Pennsylvania conducted by Duke was released earlier this week that revealed sediment downstream from wastewater treatment facilities where fracking wastewater had been processed contained radioactive material in 200 times greater concentration than the streambed above the facility. These radioactive contaminants have the chemical signature of the Marcellus Shale. The study has been publicized in numerous media outlets, but here’s the story as it appears in the Christian Science Monitor and from NBC News.

This is not a major surprise. Many geologists have noted that radioactive material lay in these shale beds, and flushing the formations with the fracking fluid would likely bring these contaminants out in solution. I recall a talk from Tony Ingraffea in which he put it: “the fracking process brings to the surface a bunch of stuff we should be happy are locked up and buried down there.”

Now, once again, realize this is not documenting that hydraulic fracturing is contaminating groundwater; no, it is the “produced” water, or wastewater from the fracked well, that is contaminated. Remember the study from University of Texas that concluded there were no links to fracking and water contamination (though the study is actually being redone since it was funded in large part by the inudstry)? Go back to my post from February 16, 2012 and see what I highlighted from that report: it’s the activity associated with fracking – the above ground handling of materials and waste that cause contamination. But fracking cannot be done without without producing waste at the surface.

Personally, I am weary of what elements are bound in our Triassic Basins that would come to the surface when fracked. I understand about the need to extract minerals from the earth for beneficial uses, but what sets fracking apart is the treatment of the flow back and produced water. Our wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to treat this waste. Add to that something I have said before:  the set up of remote industrial sites that are fracking wells makes full wastewater treatment more difficult.


Reactions to the Congressional hearing (or Casting doubt, part 2a)

I wrote yesterday about the Congressional Sub-committee on Energy and Environment hearing held February 1st on the EPA Pavillion study. I’ve come across some follow up pieces on the hearing, including an interview with John Fenton, a resident of Pavillion, WY, who was featured in Josh Fox’s Gasland film and is chair of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens. I missed their response in January to the attacks on the EPA Pavillion study, which is very worthy read. Fenton’s name was mentioned, but to further frustrate locals, no testimony from any residents of Pavillion was included during the hearing.

Josh Fox in the Democracy Now piece makes a great point in how science and observation and free press are being compromised, and that practice is rather scary. Though similar tactics of publicly refuting of science eventually failed in regards to the link of tobacco to lung cancer, it has eerily spread doubt in the public about climate change.

An op-ed piece from central Florida offers another interesting perspective on the hearing:

The people of the United States of America deserve better. The focus should not even be on lessening our dependence on foreign oil, but rather should be on lessening our dependence on (and addiction to) oil in general. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, just as it does not take more than a three-year investigation to know that hydraulic fracturing has severe side-effects and detrimental impacts to water supplies within proximity of fracking sites. The fracking process is a slap in the face to all of those who support renewable and clean energy standards for the future…

The author has a compelling point: we can debate the integrity of the science until we run out of fossil fuels and it will not change the fact that no matter how much of this natural gas we extract, we are only putting off a shift to depend on other resources. I believe that the process of extracting natural gas through horizontal drilling is an incredible feat, but we must continue to invest in alternative resources. Perhaps the widespread concern over water will actually raise the value of that most basic of commodities – water – and in order to protect it, we in turn pay more for energy that threatens our water resources. The arguments at the hearing centered on this EPA study at the Pavillion as if energy production and water protection is an either-or discussion, when in fact we need both.


Casting doubt, part 2: the Congressional hearing

You may have heard about Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, being escorted out of the Congressional hearing on hydraulic fracturing last week for lack of approved credentials. But did you hear what actually transpired at the hearing?

This was a hearing held by the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (within the committee on Science, Space, and Technology) titled “Fractured Science – Examining EPA’s Approach to Ground Water Research: The Pavillion Analysis.” The hearing was webcast in its entirety, with the archive available below:

Opening statements and link to archived webcast of hearing

The High Country News has a good summary of the hearing. Keep in mind, the study in question is the Pavillion study in Wyoming which I have mentioned in an earlier post. I streamed the entire hearing myself, and encourage anyone with a penchant for protocol to listen (and certainly anyone who might one day serve in such a hearing to listen). Having listened to the full hearing, I do wonder what the sub-committee will conclude. From the opening statement, Chairman Harris makes fairly clear his opinion that the EPA engaged in faulty science in this Pavillion study and allowed politics to trump objective science. He repeatedly grilled the EPA regional 8 administrator on the decisions of word usage to describe results of the study, and the soundness of the location for test wells. The EPA witness was also challenged on the agency’s coordination with Wyoming officials in the study.

Perhaps the most intriguing divergence demonstrated in the hearing was the testimonies of the energy industry followed by that of a public health academician (and former EPA administrator). The industry representative accused the EPA for halting production of natural gas extraction and exploration with this irresponsible study. She stated that the media picks up a piece of bad news regarding hydraulic fracturing and spreads fear in the public, when industry has proven the practice to be safe. Due to the positive impacts on the economy, she implied that energy production should continue through such minor complaints. The view from the public health perspective was that the public has good reason to be concerned, and displayed data from the Marcellus drilling areas in Pennsylvania where violations have been reported by the state Department of Environmental Protection. He went on to say that too little is known about the health effect of hydraulic fracturing, and that since this resource cannot be outsourced, to slow down in order to consider those consequences. So, keep going despite minor (in this case, minor = very small in comparison to overall energy production) health scares, or stop the process (temporarily) in order to significantly reduce the health scares: quite a crossroads…

What’s in a name?

See the article attached here describing the oil and gas industry’s effort to quash the use of the term “frack(ing).”

Industry frustration with the F- word

I admit to using ‘Frack(ing)’ frequently when talking about this technology simply because I find it quicker to write and say than ‘hydraulic fracturing.’ I do find it extremely ironic that the industry actually coined the term itself, and is now displeased with the manner in which opposition to the technology cleverly uses the term to its advantage. But what I find doubly ironic with this effort to rid common use of “Frack(ing)” is the contempt with which industry representatives have responded to concerns of citizens over the real threats to water supply and water quality. I expressed in an earlier post about the word choice and mannerism an industry representative used to describe concerned citizens, and then I see this other piece describing an executive using similar disrespectful characterization of opposition.

Fair is fair. The folks I know following this closely use respectful terminology even if they are urging a cautious approach. I would hope that industry will respect the range of concerns citizens have about an emerging technology.

{The wish on industry’s part to rid common use of “frack(ing)” even gets notice in the WONKBLOG. A personal tip of the hat to Ezra Klein on this parallel issue as he was the first journalist I read to regularly refer to the Affordable Care Act by its proper name.}


water, part two

Three reports on water quality caught my attention when I first dug deeper into what hydraulic fracturing is.The reports themselves raise questions perhaps more so than answer questions. What may be of equal interest is the response to these reports. Let me state that there are many more reports of contaminated water than what I highlight in this post, but these are the ones that got my attention to fracking, the controversy around the proliferation of the technology, and one key issue at a ‘crossroads’ of public policy.

The first report to catch my attention was the study conducted by Duke researchers. This represents the first peer-reviewed study to be published that looked at methane concentration in water wells in hydraulic fracturing areas. Notice that the study confirmed the presence of methane in the water wells with the isotopic signature from the Marcellus Shale, yet there was no other chemical signature of contamination from fracking activity.

Duke study observing correlation of methane in wells to fracking sites

One limitation acknowledged in the Duke study is the lack of ‘pre-drilling’ water quality data. As part of applying to the situation in NC with what we’ve learned elsewhere, USGS and Duke are combining for a thorough water quality sampling effort in and around the Triassic Basin in Chatham and Lee Counties.

The Duke study then led me to the case in Dimock, PA. The community is highlighted on the 60 Minutes piece linked on the Reference Sites in which residents are reporting their satisfaction for landowners to receive royalties, but the loss of water has dire circumstances. In the ProPublica article linked below, they cite that Cabot Oil & Gas, the gas developer operating in Dimock, was fined heavily for the contamination, pointing to faulty casing of the fracking well as the reason for the contamination. {Note: there are links in the ProPublica article to other water quality issues associated with natural gas drilling.}

ProPublica April 2009 article on Dimock, PA water contamination

As of December 2011, a request by Dimock residents was denied as the state DEP stated that Cabot had fulfilled its obligation. The EPA has since stepped in based on water quality tests revealing contamination levels of methane, arsenic, and other contaminants to provide bottled water. A description of the unfolding of these latest events is included in the article linked below from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

EPA steps into situation in Dimock to provide water

The EPA stepping in provides a nice segue to the third incident to catch my attention. In December 2011, the EPA released the draft report of the results of a study they conducted in Wyoming associated with the Pavillion Shale.Their analysis, done at the request of residents, verified the presence of synthetic chemicals associated with fracking as well as other chemicals in concentration greater than what is considered safe. These results did not link a direct cause to natural gas drilling, but merely indicates that the chemical signature seems to indicate possible migration of fracking fluids and hydrocarbons.

EPA release of draft of Pavillion Shale groundwater investigation

As I said at the top, what has been as eye-opening as the studies is the reactions. Yes, environmental groups have hailed these studies. And as mentioned in an earlier post on here, industry representatives have consistently questioned the integrity of these studies, whether on methodology, scientific procedure, etc – and they have almost repeated each other verbatim.

To me, what’s very curious is reading the reaction of the Pennsylvania DEP to the Duke study. The Secretary of the DEP, Michael Krancer, immediately dismissed the study – well, let me quote the response the Duke researchers wrote:

“When our paper came out, Krancer wasted no time in dismissing it, saying, “The bottom line is, it was biased science by biased researchers.”

That was baffling to us. The Department of Environmental Protection’s stated mission is “to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land, and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment.” Wouldn’t that include taking the time to understand what scientific results like ours mean, where they might apply, and what should be done in response? Instead, Krancer quickly set out to, as he put it, “refute” our study and others.” (see the full response here)

Meanwhile, the Governor of Wyoming sent a letter to the EPA requesting clarification on items, including a question about the choice of methodology used over that chosen by the state Department of Environmental Quality. I find the tone of his letter (see the link below) quite interesting, expressing concern for the state’s water and gas resources equally, but does not acknowledge the results of the draft at all.

Wyoming Governor letter to EPA

Note, the original schedule for comments on the Pavillion study was to close on January 27, 2012, but EPA has now extended that period to March 12. Energy-in-Depth, an outreach project developed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has been tracking the issue in the Pavillion. I also noted in a previous post the action taken by several U.S. Senators on this issue.

It’s getting a little tricky to determine who is serving the public interest, and how the public interest is defined…

Casting doubt, part 1

This is an article in the Fort Worth Star describing two Senator’s request to the EPA to ‘up the scientific integrity’ {my words} of their water quality study done in the Pavillion Shale of Wyoming. The EPA study in question found chemical signatures in private drinking water wells of contamination from hydraulic fracturing activities. That study is currently out for peer review.

My frustration with the questioning by these Senators is that they have requested the EPA do something that would affect the study at this point, yet they are stating that the EPA has a suspect process to date: damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in other words. This is an outright set up for failure – compromising the integrity of the EPA study before the peer reviewed final analysis can be released. These Senators have already discounted the results as invalid.

Senators: Raise bar for Wyo. frack study review | Latest State headlines from AP | News ….

{Note: after stewing on this for a little bit, I just want to reiterate my objectivity in publishing this blog. Yes, this move by the Senators frustrates me and I state that it tilts the playing field, and me saying this may appear subjective. It is not. I am merely shining light on this technique of casting doubt on a scientific study, and that once doubt has been cast, both sides of a dispute may win. -BT}