Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nagging Questions

I know I said yesterday I was working on a post on critics of drilling. And I was. I emailed one prominent individual who is named as a critic, even though his criticisms have more to do with the economic sustainability and viability of the Marcellus Shale play rather than drilling or hydraulic fracturing. I am awaiting his reply to some emailed questions before I proceed. I decided to read and report on a study the Environmental Protection Agency published on possible contamination or degradation of drinking water in and around areas where hydraulic fracturing has been used to eliminate coal-bed methane as a hazard. Over 400 pages, complete with pictures and charts and everything. Bureaucratic reports are fun reading.

Although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.
Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Source of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reserves, 2004, Final Report
Under the multiple pressures of its legislative authority to evaluate potential threats to drinking water, complaints from residents in a variety of places that hydraulic fracturing has introduced contaminants into or drained wells or other drinking water supplies, and with the additional judicial determination that investigating and evaluating the potential threat to drinking water supplies from hydraulic fracturing, the EPA in 2001 began a study that resulted, in 2004, in the report (.pdf) whose conclusion is quoted above.

On the other hand . . .
In July, a hydrologist dropped a plastic sampling pipe 300 feet down a water well in rural Sublette County, Wyo., and pulled up a load of brown oily water with a foul smell. Tests showed it contained benzene, a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia, in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people.


The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply. In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells.
As part of its larger narrative, ProPublica takes aim at the EPA study so heralded by the industry:
[O]ne of the report’s three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA hydrogeologist, now cautions that the research has been misconstrued by industry. The study focused solely on the effect hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water in coal bed methane deposits, typically shallow formations where gas is embedded in coal. It didn’t consider the impact of above-ground drilling or of drilling in geologic formations deep underground, where many of the large new gas reserves are being developed today.

"It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study," Jollie says. "I don’t think we ever characterized it that way."

Nevertheless, a few months after the report’s release, the sweeping 2005 Energy Policy Act was passed. Almost no attention was paid to the three paragraphs that stripped the federal government of most of its authority to monitor and regulate hydraulic fracturing’s impact on the environment. By default, that responsibility would now fall to the states.

“That pretty much closed the door,” said Greg Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist working in the western drilling states. “So we absolutely do not look at fracking...under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s not done.”


"We've kind of reached the tipping point," says Dhieux, the EPA inspector in Denver. "The impacts are there."

In December 2007, a house in Bainbridge, Ohio exploded in a fiery ball. Investigators discovered that the neighborhood’s tap water contained so much methane that the house ignited. A study released this month concluded that pressure caused by hydraulic fracturing pushed the gas, which is found naturally thousands of feet below, through a system of cracks into the groundwater aquifer.
Ian Urbina's April 16, 2011 New York Times story on a study done by Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
The inquiry over hydrofracking, which was initiated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Mr. Waxman led it last year, also found that 14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products — not including water. More than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants, the report said.
Who is right about this? According to an extensive report at, there are, indeed, documented cases of direct links between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.
An internal document from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection outlines over 60 instances of water contamination and fugitive methane migration from gas drilling operations, many of which were due to unexpected pockets of underground pressure, the failure to contain well pressure, faulty production casing, or the accidental drilling into other abandoned or producing gas wells.
The National Resources Defense Council, which supports federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing (rather than an outright ban, which many current fracking opponents seem to prefer), has a list of other confirmed cases where a direct link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination exist. Among the many documented cases is the following:
Pennsylvania: A gas well near the home of the Simons family in Bradford County was drilled in 2009 and re-fracked in February, 2011. Shortly after the 2011 operation, the Simons family reports that their tap water turned gray and hazy. After the water changed, family members began getting severe rashes with oozing blisters, and one child had to be taken to the hospital for torrential nosebleeds that would not stop, nausea and severe headaches. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tested the water and found very high levels of methane and other contaminants in the water, but said it was safe to drink. Since the Simons family stopped using any of their water, these symptoms have gone away but the water still “stinks awfully; it is a scummy, rotten, nasty smell...”
It seems obvious that more study of the possibility of contamination of drinking water supplies, whether private wells or public sources, needs to be done. A constant theme among critics of the 2004 EPA report - among many - is that there is still a great deal we do not know about the structure and possible flow activity within the areas currently being drilled. While the 2004 study seemed to indicate that hydraulic fracturing posed no risk to drinking water, as a former EPA official in the Bush Administration has made clear:
When we got the report, it was a snapshot in time. It was a thorough review describing the issues. Whether it's hydraulic fracturing or any other type of practice that can have an impact on the environment, one single report shouldn't be the basis for a perpetual, never-ending policy decision.”

It wasn't meant to be a bill of health saying 'well, this practice is fine. Exempt it in all respects from any regulation.' I'm sure that wasn't the intent of the panel of experts, and EPA never viewed it that way. That's one reason why we were urging Congress to say 'look, if you are going to issue an exemption, ensure that it is not perpetual.'
Despite a clean bill of health once upon a time, I see no reason not to ask, again, about the safety to our drinking water.

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