Contaminated, Polluted or Just Impaired?

water glassesTo calm or downplay fears and concerns the industry uses “weasel words”. Terms like “recommendations” or “guidelines” are suggestions that may or may not be followed. With other weasel words, it is all about how the word is being defined and by whom.

When the industry says “fracking doesn’t cause water contamination”, it is technically true because of how the industry defines “fracking”.   To the general public fracking is the entire process of drilling, fracking and extraction.   The industry defines fracking as the moment where the underground explosion occurs and the shale is shattered.   In those few moments, there is no occurrence of water contamination.   The most common causes of water contamination are well casing failure, migration of toxic fluids over time, spills and leaks.

Another use of weasel words is for the industry to say “Pipelines don’t age”. Pipelines in fossil fuel corporation speak refer to the Pipeline system as a whole, whereas the public looks at a pipeline as a series of connecting pipes.

Without making this distinction the industry is free to claim “pipelines don’t age”.

“Pipelines” may not age, but the pipes and other equipment which make up the “pipeline” do age.

Weasel Word of the Week

A website called is a nonprofit organization using remote sensing and digital mapping to create stunning images that expose the landscape disruption and habitat degradation caused by mining, oil and gas drilling, deforestation, fishing and other human activities.

Through SkyTruth you are able to subscribe for alerts in your area and tailor them for your specific interests.

It was through these alerts that I came across the new weasel word – “Impaired Water”.

Per Report Details of June 10, 2015:

Operator         Noble Energy Inc

Violation Type          Environmental Health & Safety

Violation Date           2015-06-10

Violation Code          78.54 – GENERAL REQUIREMENTS – Operator failed to control and dispose of fluids, residual waste and drill cuttings, including tophole water, brines, drilling fluids, drilling muds, stimulation fluids, well servicing fluids, oil, and production fluids in a manner that prevents pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth.

Violation ID   725556

Permit API     059-26463

Unconventional        Y

County           Greene

Municipality   Richhill Twp

Inspection Type        Incident- Response to Accident or Event

Inspection Date        2015-06-10

Comments    On 6/10/2015, I performed an inspection of Noble Energy RHL-23 well pad site. Present at time of inspection was Nick Frosini (Noble Energy). The site is located in Richhill Twp., Greene County. The inspection was performed as a response to a reported impared water [sic] spill by the operator. The operator intially reported a spill of 210 gallons of impared water [sic] from the pump down tanks during the fracking of the RHL23 FHS well. During transfer of impared water [sic] to the pump down tanks on the well pad in preparation of fracking activity the tanks were overfilled and the impared water [sic] was discharged off containment to the well pad. The impared water [sic] did not leave the well pad and all well pad perimeter drains where shut in the area of the spill. The operator plans to begin cleanup activity and confirmatory sampling during downtime for fracking activities.

What is impaired water?

According to Pennsylvania DEP sources:

The term was used to describe the released fluids because we know the fluids that were released are definitely not freshwater and possibly represent a blend or combination of fluids available on the well site for this pump down operation. This is simply a general term used to describe water that is not freshwater or from a freshwater source. The Noble representative could not provide an accurate description of the makeup or origin of this water so, impaired was general term our DEP inspector used.

A search of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Compliance reports for January 1, 2010 thru June 17, 2015 showed the first instance of the term “Impaired water” appeared on October 29, 2014:


“On 10/29/2014, I performed an inspection of Vantage Energy’s Shumaker well pad site w/ Kevin Maskol (DEP). The site is located in Center Twp., Greene County. The inspection was performed as a routine inspection related to a permit review related to installation of a AST tank to be used for stimulation activity.

The operator informed the DEP that the tank on location which was setup for fresh water storage for fracking of the wells on location is going to be switched to storage of brine, and impaired water for fracking activity. During the inspection it was noted that containment had been setup around the tank and at a truck offload point to the tank. The tank also had a discharge line into the top from a fresh water line being fed from fresh water off load point at a second location near RTE 21.”

The term Impaired Water gained more frequent usage in June of 2015 with three more instances.

According to the US Clean Water Act, impaired waters are rivers, lakes, or streams that do not meet one or more water-quality standards and are considered too polluted for their intended uses.

To those living with “impaired water” it doesn’t matter what term is used, their water is unusable for drinking, bathing, cooking etc., however for those of us who perhaps have the advantage of a little more distance from the direct impact of the industry “impaired water” sounds less frightening than polluted or contaminated water doesn’t it?

How Many Homes Have Impaired Water?

In August of 2014, the DEP published reports of over 248 case documents where natural gas operations have damaged private water supplies. 248 cases may seem like a small number, however for DEP to inspect and test the water, the property owner must first report the problem to DEP and then DEP must follow up.

What we don’t know is how many cases are not reported to the DEP because the homeowner contacted the natural gas driller first, and then signed an agreement for the driller to provide them with freshwater. Typically the agreement includes a nondisclosure clause which prevents the homeowner from contacting DEP, thus the DEP is ignorant of the problem.

We also don’t know if a backlog of cases exists where the homeowner has contacted DEP but DEP hasn’t followed up as yet.

According to

Between January and October 14, 2014, PA experienced 214 spills by unconventional oil & gas drillers. We could determine that 53 of these spills were produced fluids. On average there is a spill 3 out of every 4 days.

The recently released Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) 2015 report does little to shed more light on the problem. By their own admission the report is compromised by “insufficient data” to evaluate drinking water impacts “with any certainty”.

Call it what you like, Impaired, Contaminated or Polluted water – just don’t drink it.

©2015 by Dory Hippauf



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