5 posts

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!

Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation

Gas Drilling Rig

Just received an email from Trout Unlimited mentioning a group I was not familiar with, the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation. They have a video about the concerns associated with gas drilling in Pennsylvania and you can also listen to a recent podcast about the Sportsmen Alliance with Chris Wood, TU’s CEO, and Katy Dunlap, Director of the TU’s Eastern Water Project.

I think their focus is well-stated:

“The Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation (Sportsmen Alliance) is a coalition of sportsmen and women working together to identify and propose solutions to mitigate the impacts caused by gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale on hunting, fishing, trapping and other outdoor sporting activities. The coalition is not opposed to gas drilling and recognizes the potential economic and social benefits. Rather, the Sportsmen Alliance is concerned that the current state and local policies governing gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale do not adequately protect valuable and irreplaceable natural resources, including clean water and critical habitat for fish and wildlife.”

You can also read more about the Sportsmen Alliance in an article from the Wall Street Journal. Some troubling things the group has found include the following:

“Already, preliminary water testing by sportsmen is showing consistently high levels of bromides and total dissolved solids in some streams near fracking operations, Dufalla said. Bromide is a salt that reacts with the chlorine disinfectants used by drinking water systems and creates trihalomethanes.”

Keeping on top of how energy companies extract natural gas is critical. There is no good way to clean up contaminated ground water and we certainly want to avoid contaminating streams and drinking water supplies near these drilling operations. I’ve written about the dangers of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region quite a bit previously. The threat to brook trout streams is real.

Brook Trout Could Be The Only Thing Separating Marcellus Gas Drillers from Fortunes

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past Sunday was an article about recently discovered trout populations in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is going to vote on whether to designate “98 streams statewide as Naturally Reproducing Wild Trout Waters, following the recent discovery there of trout populations, some by volunteer anglers working in a program that trains them to do stream surveys.” Interesting article with a lot of details and quotes from people in the environmental, state government and gas factions.

This could trigger further testing and land use restrictions that could impede Marcellus shale gas drilling operations in some areas. I’ll mention again that I think gas drilling done safely would be great, but the natural gas drilling industry has a spotty record so far.

Pennsylvania has some great online resources but I can’t keep them all straight. They have great fishing maps with all types of water and regulations shown. Then they have all these designations like Class A Wild Trout Streams, Streams that Support Natural Reproduction of Trout, Wilderness Trout Streams and more. The 98 streams mentioned in the article above are going to be voted on for inclusion in one of these categories. I could guess but I’m not completely sure which of these is it.

Maryland Lawmakers Warned of Natural Gas Drilling Risks

Gas Well
Hydrofracking, courtesy of

Last week I wrote something about the potential risks of Marcellus shale gas drilling and hydrofracking and how this is very possibly something that will affect water quality and therefore brook trout. I just read an article in the Baltimore Sun about the former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and his take gas drilling. In a meeting with Maryland lawmakers, his advice is to be careful (emphasis below is from me):

“If you have time to do additional studies up front, I would recommend it,” said Quigley, now a senior fellow with a Pennsylvania environmental group. The former manager of Pennsylvania’s state forests said his state has experienced major problems with contamination of drinking water wells, mainly from improperly drilled gas wells.

In one instance, Quigley said, a poorly drilled well caused natural gas to seep a mile underground and bubble up in the middle of the Susquehanna River. There also have been spills of diesel fuel and of the fluid used in fracking, he said.

While much of the fluid remains underground, some is pumped back out and must be treated because it is very salty and contains minerals and other contaminants from the shale, including radioactive substances.

This is exactly the kind of stuff people should be worried about. I’m all for gas drilling if it is always done safely, but many of these drilling operations have a mixed record so far.

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.