Is water contamination a result of Marcellus Shale drilling?
Hydraulic drilling (“fracking”) produces toxic fluid waste which some believe is making its way into the water supply. One study suggests a potential widespread contamination of drinking water in rural Pennsylvania from drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
“Some of these landowners have a legitimate complaint. It looks like there’s a real problem,” said Robert Jackson, an environmental chemist at Duke University. The study did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing fluid or flowback waste is getting into drinking water. The contamination was being caused by the chemical methane – which is a main component in natural gas. The study found methane content was 17 times higher within 3,000 feet of drilling than water farther away.
The gas industry is knocking the study saying there is no baseline for proof on drilling wells causing the methane contamination. The industry is upset because there are firm accusations with no data to back it up. With many counterclaims going back and forth, researchers plan to back into the field to test wells where gas was drilled since the samples were taken last year. The researchers at Duke – who originally conducted the study – have recommended more research into the medical effects of methane exposure and also more on the disposal of fracturing fluid.
The research team tested 68 wells in Pennsylvania and New York finding that 85 percent of them had some amount of methane. The team found that within 3,000 feet, the concentration spikes upward sharply and the chemical makeup more closely resembles the deep shale the gases are producing. Within a kilometer of drilling, the methane levels found were 17 times higher than areas not being drilled in. This is higher than the level at which federal coal mine regulators recommend immediate action.
John Conrad, a groundwater geologist from upstate New York, says the researchers are quick to blame drilling when they have not compare the same water wells before and after drilling. “This is possibly an interesting trend,” said Conrad, who has worked with the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. “But with this small number of data points and no baseline data, it doesn’t prove it. It might reflect the amount of gas that’s always been there.”
America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) stated that the study compares “apples to oranges” and criticized the study for not including where the groundwater samples were taken. “We welcome serious, fact-based scientific inquiries into how we do our work,” ANGA said. “Upon initial review, however, this study lacks key data that would be needed to validate its conclusions.”
Critics have long contended that fracking could be contaminating drinking water. But industry representatives have said it cannot be because the fluid is injected too deeply underground more than a mile beneath the earth’s surface. The Duke researchers said the gas they found in the water is not coming up through rocks from the pressure of fracturing, but coming up through the wellbore. The study found no evidence of contamination from hydraulic fracturing fluids or saline produced waters and that not all water wells close to drilling operations had methane – suggesting that the methane leakage is not an inevitable side effect of drilling but improperly run drill pipe.
Could the contamination be caused by leaky well casings? As for now, we don’t really know the answer to that. However, the gas companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fracturing fluid. Governments are pushing the Congress should order federal regulation of fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) – but this law has never officially passed.
In Dimock, PA a laboratory worker kneeled before a gushing spigot behind a landowner’s house and positioned an empty bottle under the clear, cold stream. The process is then repeated dozens of times as the bottles are filled and packed into coolers. After this testing is complete, the landowner and nearby neighbors will know what is lurking in their well as federal regulators investigate claims of contamination in the midst of one of the nation’s most productive gas fields.
The landowner currently lives near a pair of gas wells drilled in 2008 and water started to become discolored a few months ago – with a strange odor and taste. Suddenly, the resident’s dogs and cats refused to drink it. That being said, the landowner is hoping the testing will provide answers.
If something is wrong with the water, who is responsible? Who fixes it and what does it do to the value of the property? These are questions asked by many current landowners and they all want answers to these questions who are all unsure if their water is safe to drink.
In Pennsylvania, it was reported that huge volumes of partially treated wastewater were being discharged into rivers and streams that supply drinking water. While the fracking wastewater was asked to be monitored, a loophole in the policy allowed many oil and gas drillers to continue discharging significant amounts of wastewater into treatment plants.
“We have been clear that if we see an immediate threat to public health, we will not hesitate to take steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk,” said Terri White, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokeswoman in Philadelphia.
The EPA investigations are being conducted amid reports of possibly drilling-related contamination in several Pennsylvania communities. Some residents in these areas claim that the state agency has failed to hold drillers accountable.
In Dimock, EPA staff are inspecting well pads and natural gas compressor stations for compliance with water and air quality laws. Some residents say their water wells were contaminated after Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation drilled faulty gas wells that leaked methane into the aquifer and spilled many gallons of fracking fluid. Cabot denies responsibility for the methane. The EPA suggests immediate action needs taken. Residents are paying additional money for bottled water – at an estimated $500 per week.
The EPA is Investigating
As stated above, the controversy has attracted the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has announced it will conduct a comprehensive $1.9 million study to investigate the impact hydraulic fracturing may have on water quality and public health.
The mixed chemicals being injected into the wells during fracking are raising concerns of increased methane in drinking water. The fracking process releases natural gas from the shale, but the EPA said there are concerns the process may degrade surface and ground water and pose a serious threat to ground water, human health and the environment.
The EPA is in the early stages of designing a hydraulic fracturing research program. Dr. Paul Anastas, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said the research will be conducted in a “transparent, peer-reviewed process, with significant stakeholder input.”
***The Marcellus shale could hold as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply the nation’s gas needs for up to 15 years. The gas bonanza has resulted in a boom in well permitting and construction. Statewide, approximately 2,500 Marcellus shale gas well drilling permits were issued from 2007 through 2009 by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which projects another 5,000 permits will be issued this year.