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EPA Implicates Fracking in Groundwater Contamination in Wyoming


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has for the first time implicated hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in groundwater contamination. Though hardly the last word on this increasingly common practice for extracting natural gas from the ground, and not a blanket indictment of the practice, it is a significant finding. This whole issue is heating up in the east, with Pennsylvania and New York at the center of what has become a well-known controversy in the Marcellus shale region.

My own view is that while it may be possible to do hydraulic fracturing safely in a lot of places, there have been so many allegations of energy companies contaminating groundwater and dumping the wastewater from fracking operations irresponsibly that it’s hard to feel confident about how safe it is. And I still don’t feel comfortable hearing from these companies that there is no reason to worry about the millions of gallons of water and toxic fluids being injected into each gas well since, as they claim, these fluids are put so far below the water table that this stuff will never find its way back up to contaminate our groundwater.

How many times have we heard from companies, “Trust us, it’s safe,” only to find out years later how wrong they were. Once groundwater is contaminated, it’s not easily cleaned up. We don’t even know where a lot of this water goes once it seeps into the ground. We don’t have extensive maps of underground reservoirs and waterways. How can anyone guarantee the safety of the waters we drink and fish without understanding this in much greater detail?

Be circumspect about all this. The brook trout that rely on all this groundwater are watching closely!

Marcellus Shale Hydrofracking, Pollution, Ground Water and Trout

Infrared Shot of Gas Plant
Infrared Shot of Marcellus Shale Gas Plant

The debate about the safety of hydraulic fracturing of rock deep in the Marcellus formation to recover natural gas rages on. WTAE in Pittsburgh has a story showing air emissions from a Marcellus shale gas plant in Pennsylvania, and there seems to again be controversy over what exactly is going on with these drilling operations.

I think most people would love to see Marcellus gas production if done safely. That is the whole question with hydrofracking — how safe is it? There are numerous reports of ground water contamination, improper disposal of fracking fluids into river systems, the use of highly toxic chemicals, the exemption from publicly reporting of what chemicals are used and fish kills due to Marcellus gas drilling operations. From the WTAE story, which is about just the air pollution from gas operations:

Pam and Kristen Judy say they’ve been getting headaches, sore throats and nose bleeds ever since this compressor station was built next door. DEP air monitoring in the Judy’s yard last year found evidence of methane, benzene, toluene, acetone and 12 other compounds.

John Hanger, DEP: “The total numbers, once we get to 40,000 wells in this state, of air emissions, unless the industry uses the cleanest technology, will be a problem.”

Ray Walker, Marcellus Shale Coalition: “We’re literally going to be able to move gas or compress gas or treat gas with literally tenths of a percent of the emissions that we used to.” Some of those technologies already exist but aren’t always used. In fact, they aren’t required to be used. Like vapor recovery units that can be placed on tank stacks to prevent the kind of pollution plume you’re seeing here. That’s why the group GASP wants DEP to require the use of cleaner technologies.

The concerns over groundwater pollution are much greater.

Pennsylvania, with over 5000 miles of water containing brook trout, stands to lose a lot if drillers are not responsible or if it is not possible to drill for gas safely, both of which seem to be in question. Brook trout depend on clean groundwater. Humans, not coincidentally, depend on groundwater, too. Groundwater flows deep within the earth’s crust and provides fresh water in our springs, streams, rivers, lakes, wells and irrigation systems. We don’t have maps showing where this water travels deep underground. Injecting millions of gallons of fracking fluids into a gas well is not guaranteed to be contained within the well area, and gas drilling chemicals are often not contained (this link is to a bunch of lawyers with an interest in exposing this, but the site links to actual articles on reputable news sites). And once contaminated, cleaning up a water source thousands of feet underground is not possible, and where that water flows next is not always understood.

It all just begs for caution. And these drilling companies (though I think many share these concerns to a degree) are primarily in the business of extracting gas. If they were primarily in the business of protecting groundwater, then they would be preventing the injection of toxic chemicals thousands of feet underground, and they would not be lobbying state governments and municipalities to accept their contaminated fracking water and allow its disposal directly into rivers.