Feds link water contamination to fracking for the first time

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To confirm their findings EPA investigators drilled two monitoring wells 1000 ft apart.

In a first, fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment of­fi­cials today sci­en­tif­i­cally linked un­der­ground water pol­lu­tion with hy­draulic frac­tur­ing, con­clud­ing that con­t­a­m­i­nants found in cen­tral Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.

The find­ings by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency come part­way through a sep­a­rate na­tional study by the agency to de­ter­mine whether frack­ing pre­sents a risk to water re­sources.

In the 121-page draft re­port re­leased today, EPA of­fi­cials said that the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion near the town of Pavil­lion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and con­tained at least 10 com­pounds known to be used in frack flu­ids.

“The pres­ence of syn­thetic com­pounds such as gly­col ethers … and the as­sort­ment of other or­ganic com­po­nents is ex­plained as the re­sult of di­rect mix­ing of hy­draulic frac­tur­ing flu­ids with ground water in the Pavil­lion gas field,” the draft re­port states. “Al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions were care­fully con­sid­ered.”

The agency’s find­ings could be a turn­ing point in the heated na­tional de­bate about whether con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from frack­ing is hap­pen­ing, and are likely to shape how the coun­try reg­u­lates and de­vel­ops nat­ural gas re­sources in the Mar­cel­lus Shale and across the East­ern Ap­palachian states.

Some of the find­ings in the re­port also di­rectly con­tra­dict long­stand­ing ar­gu­ments by the drilling in­dus­try for why the frack­ing process is safe: that hy­dro­logic pres­sure would nat­u­rally force flu­ids down, not up; that deep ge­o­logic lay­ers pro­vide a wa­ter­tight bar­rier pre­vent­ing the move­ment of chem­i­cals to­wards the sur­face; and that the prob­lems with the ce­ment and steel bar­ri­ers around gas wells aren’t con­nected to frack­ing.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates greeted today’s re­port with a sense of vin­di­ca­tion and seized the op­por­tu­nity to argue for stronger fed­eral reg­u­la­tion of frack­ing.

“No one can ac­cu­rately say that there is ‘no risk’ where frack­ing is con­cerned,” wrote Amy Mall, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Nat­ural Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, on her blog. “This draft re­port makes ob­vi­ous that there are many fac­tors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to en­sure that well con­struc­tion stan­dards are stronger and re­duce threats to drink­ing water.”


A spokesman for En­Cana, the gas com­pany that owns the Pavil­lion wells, did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. In an email ex­change after the EPA re­leased pre­lim­i­nary water test data two weeks ago, the spokesman, Doug Hock, de­nied that the com­pany’s ac­tions were to blame for the pol­lu­tion and sug­gested it was nat­u­rally caused.“Noth­ing EPA pre­sented sug­gests any­thing has changed since Au­gust of last year– the sci­ence re­mains in­con­clu­sive in terms of data, im­pact, and source,” Hock wrote. “It is also im­por­tant to rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of hy­drol­ogy and ge­ol­ogy with re­gard to the sam­pling re­sults in the Pavil­lion Field. The field con­sists of gas-bear­ing zones in the near sub­sur­face, poor gen­eral water qual­ity pa­ra­me­ters and dis­con­tin­u­ous wa­ter-bear­ing zones.”

The EPA’s find­ings im­me­di­ately trig­gered what is sure to be­come a heated po­lit­i­cal de­bate as mem­bers of Con­gress con­sider afresh pro­pos­als to reg­u­late frack­ing. After a phone call with EPA chief Lisa Jack­son this morn­ing, Sen. James In­hofe, R-Okla., told a Sen­ate panel that he found the agency’s re­port on the Pavil­lion-area con­t­a­m­i­na­tion “of­fen­sive.” In­hofe’s of­fice had chal­lenged the EPA’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Wyoming last year, ac­cus­ing the agency of bias.

Res­i­dents began com­plain­ing of fouled water near Pavil­lion in the mid-1990s, and the prob­lems ap­peared to get worse around 2004. Sev­eral res­i­dents com­plained that theirwell water turned brown shortly after gas wells were fracked nearby, and, for a time, gas com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in the area sup­plied re­place­ment drink­ing water to res­i­dents.

Be­gin­ning in 2008, the EPA took water sam­ples from res­i­dent’s drink­ing water wells,find­ing hy­dro­car­bons and traces of con­t­a­m­i­nants that seemed like they could be re­lated to frack­ing. In 2010, an­other round of sam­pling con­firmed the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, and the EPA, along with fed­eral health of­fi­cials, cau­tioned res­i­dents not to drink their water and to ven­ti­late their homes when they bathed be­cause the methane in the water could cause an ex­plo­sion.

To con­firm their find­ings, EPA in­ves­ti­ga­tors drilled two water mon­i­tor­ing wells to 1,000 feet. The agency re­leased data from these test wells in No­vem­ber that con­firmed high lev­els of car­cino­genic chem­i­cals such as ben­zene, and a chem­i­cal com­pound called 2 Bu­toxyethanol, which is known to be used in frack­ing.

Still, the EPA had not drawn con­clu­sions based on the tests and took pains to sep­a­rate its ground­wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Wyoming from the na­tional con­tro­versy around hy­draulic frac­tur­ing. Agri­cul­ture, drilling, and old pol­lu­tion from waste pits left by the oil and gas in­dus­try were all con­sid­ered pos­si­ble causes of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.

In the re­port re­leased today, the EPA said that pol­lu­tion from 33 aban­doned oil and gas waste pits – which are the sub­ject of a sep­a­rate cleanup pro­gram – are in­deed re­spon­si­ble for some de­gree of shal­low ground­wa­ter pol­lu­tion in the area. Those pits may be the source of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion af­fect­ing at least 42 pri­vate water wells in Pavil­lion. But the pits could not be blamed for con­t­a­m­i­na­tion de­tected in the water mon­i­tor­ing wells 1,000 feet un­der­ground.

That con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, the agency con­cluded, had to have been caused by frack­ing.

The EPA’s find­ings in Wyoming are spe­cific to the re­gion’s ge­ol­ogy; the Pavil­lion-area gas wells were fracked at shal­lower depths than many of the wells in the Mar­cel­lus shale and else­where.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors tested the ce­ment and cas­ing of the gas wells and found what they de­scribed as “spo­radic bond­ing” of the ce­ment in areas im­me­di­ately above where frack­ing took place. The ce­ment bar­rier meant to pro­tect the well bore and iso­late the chem­i­cals in their in­tended zone had been weak­ened and sep­a­rated from the well, the EPA con­cluded.

The re­port also found that hy­dro­logic pres­sure in the Pavil­lion area had pushed flu­ids from deeper ge­o­logic lay­ers to­wards the sur­face. Those lay­ers were not suf­fi­cient to pro­vide a re­li­able bar­rier to con­t­a­m­i­nants mov­ing up­ward, the re­port says.

Through­out its in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Wyoming, The EPA was ham­strung by a lack of dis­clo­sure about ex­actly what chem­i­cals had been used to frack the wells near Pavil­lion. En­Cana de­clined to give fed­eral of­fi­cials a de­tailed break­down of every com­pound used un­der­ground. The agency re­lied in­stead on more gen­eral in­for­ma­tion sup­plied by the com­pany to pro­tect work­ers’ health.

Hock would not say whether En­Cana had used 2 BE, one of the first chem­i­cals iden­ti­fied in Pavil­lion and known to be used in frack­ing, at its wells in Pavil­lion. But he was dis­mis­sive of its im­por­tance in the EPA’s find­ings. “There was a sin­gle de­tec­tion of 2-BE among all the sam­ples col­lected in the deep mon­i­tor­ing wells. It was found in one sam­ple by only one of three labs,” he wrote in his reply to ProP­ub­lica two weeks ago. “In­con­sis­tency in de­tec­tion and non-re­peata­bil­ity shouldn’t be con­strued as fact.”

The EPA’s draft re­port will un­dergo a pub­lic re­view and peer re­view process, and is ex­pected to be fi­nal­ized by spring.



Radiation Tests from St Louis, MO up to 18x Background Radiation

Took this sample around 1 pm, after a 20 minute 6 mile round trip driving through a Seattle Style all day rainfall. The readings max at 0.132 mR/hr, or roughly 13 times background radiation. Given that it rained twice yesterday and has been raining all day today, I am a bit surprised that the contamination reading is so high.

This sample was from less than 50 drops of rain water on my SUV, taken on the evening of 5/13/11. The sample stabilized at 0.186 mR/hr. The reading is high given the small amount of water, and data from EPA’s RadNet that a significant amount of Gamma and Beta radioactive fallout had washed out of Saint Louis air approximately 20 hours earlier in a overnight rain storm. for details see: