Is it Fracking Up Water or Not?

frackwater-glassThe Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its long awaited report: Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources., (External Review Draft).

Industry supporters hoped it would say there is no connection between fracking and water contamination. Fracktivists hoped the report would show there is a connection.

The report did neither.

The issue was further fracked up by the headlines.

By and large mainstream media outlets claimed the EPA report showed no connection, and this was widely cheered by the industry, their trade and front organizations.

Other news outlets claimed the report does show a connection.

mr ed

If you rely on news articles the answer to the question of “Does Fracking contaminate water or not? “depends on which article you read.   Or you could go straight to the horse’s mouth and read it for yourself.

Brief History of Reports

For Pennsylvania, Dimock PA became the poster child for the connection between fracking and water contamination.

The EPA inserted itself into the controversy over objections from Former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Michael Krancer.

In 2012 an EPA report determined the Dimock water was safe to drink.   The report had a few problems.   In 2013, an internal EPA PowerPoint presentation was leaked to the Los Angeles Times where EPA staff members warned their superiors that more testing should be done at Dimock because of the presence of contaminants such as methane, arsenic and barium, most likely the result of fracking:

The presentation, based on data collected over 4 1/2 years at 11 wells around Dimock, concluded that “methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality.” The presentation also concluded that “methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking [hydraulic fracturing] and other gas well work.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) released the preliminary results of a study that found that a fracking operation in Pennsylvania monitored by researchers did not threaten underground water supplies.

However, the DOE report did note:

Seismic monitoring determined one hydraulic fracture traveled 1,800 feet out from the well bore; most traveled just a few hundred feet. That’s significant because some environmental groups have questioned whether the fractures could go all the way to the surface.

Almost simultaneously, the government filed a lawsuit on behalf of the EPA against an ExxonMobil subsidiary for allegedly contaminating water supplies while fracking in Pennsylvania.

The EPA also has come under fire for dropping a high-profile investigation into alleged water contamination in Texas and postponing another high-profile investigation in Wyoming.

The 2015 EPA Report

As mentioned, the 998 page report did not definitely settle the question of water contamination and fracking.

The report uses terms such as “potential”, “widespread” and “systematic” which leave the reader to define and interpret for themselves.

Major Findings on One Hand:

From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources. These mechanisms include water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.

Major Findings on the Other Hand:

We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.



FracFocus Data

EPA relied on chemical data via FracFocus.   FracFocus was given a big, fat “F” as a reporting tool by Harvard Environmental Law in April 2013.

Of great concern, is the omission of chemicals deemed as “trade secrets”.   There are no standards for determining what is or isn’t a trade secret.   It is left up to the Gas and Oil corporations to decide what is or isn’t a trade secret and therefore what to report or not.

FracFocus does not review the submissions for completeness or accuracy.  Together with the cumbersome “correction” process, the lack of review encourages inadequate reporting by operators.   As far as we know, an operator entering gummy bears and ketchup as chemical ingredients would go unnoticed.

To Add to the Confusion

EPA said its investigators found “specific instances” where one or more mechanisms affected drinking water, including contamination of wells. The agency report said the number of identified cases “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” but conceded it wasn’t sure why.


“This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors,” the EPA said. “These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.”

248 in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania DEP published details of 248 cases of water contamination from the activities of the natural gas industry in August 2014.  As with the EPA report, the DEP downplayed the significance.

According to the DEP, these cases have been on the decline since a peak in 2010, and are a small number compared to the 20,000 wells that have been drilled in Pennsylvania over the last six years.

“In perspective, the percentages are good,” said DEP Spokesman Eric Shirk


 The release of these documents follows a report by the state’s auditor general criticizing the DEP for mishandling complaints about water quality and drilling, including poor record-keeping.

While DEP admits to 248 cases, there is more than that.   Many families who have contaminated water do not report it to the DEP and contact the driller instead.   The driller will present them with a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for providing the family with water.

The DEP has no idea of how many families are receiving water from the drillers. Drillers are not required to report it, and families are gagged by signing the non-disclosure agreement.

As of May 18, 2015, the List of the Harmed has over 16,200 entries of families across the nation who has been harmed by the industry. The list is compiled by individuals contacting the list authors and/or from news articles.


There Will Be Contamination

Although the EPA and DEP reports seek to alleviate concerns by claiming there is no widespread or systematic contamination, they and the industry has known for decades faulty well casings provide a conduit for contaminants to enter water supplies and happens in conventional and unconventional drilling.

“Many of the leaks probably occur when natural gas travels up the outside of the borehole, potentially even thousands of feet, and is released directly into drinking-water aquifers” said Robert Poreda, professor of geochemistry at the University of Rochester.

Well casings fail over time and all wells eventually fail.   The older the well the more likely there will be contamination.

Pennsylvania has not learned from other resource booms, specifically the coal mining boom.   Mining companies have moved out, and left their problems for Pennsylvania to clean up.


Pennsylvania’s Act 13 hold driller liable for problems only for one year after the well has been plugged.   Problems, such of water contamination, after the one year period are no longer a concern to the drillers, but will be of concern to Pennsylvanians.


© 2015 by Dory Hippauf


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