Reactions To EPA's Fracking Pollution Findings Prove 'Gaseous'

Wyoming study found groundwater contamination from fracking chemicals, but from storage pits, not fracked gas wells. Anti-frackers still fume.

Published on: Dec 13, 2011

Reactions to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's report on Wyoming groundwater contamination by hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in natural gas drilling were swift and volatile. Trouble is, few actually read the EPA's 121-page draft report.

Much of the media coverage and outrage of anti-frackers in the Pavillion, Wyoming, case missed the point: The fracking chemicals came from storage ponds – not from the gas wells. But EPA's draft report also noted that the well casings used to prevent migration of the chemicals into the water aquifer were either not properly cemented or cementing was non-existant. And, the wells were in close proximity to water wells.

NO FISH POND: While this fracking chemical storage pond (foreground) in Pennsylvania meets tough state standards, the pits in the controversial Pavillion, Wyoming, case and the gas well-casing protections would not pass muster in the Keystone State.
NO FISH POND: While this fracking chemical storage pond (foreground) in Pennsylvania meets tough state standards, the pits in the controversial Pavillion, Wyoming, case and the gas well-casing protections would not pass muster in the Keystone State.

Repercussions of the EPA report shook political ground all the way back to the Northeast, particularly in New York State where public hearings were winding up. New York regulators haven't issued permits for gas drilling with high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale since they began an extensive environmental review in 2008. A public comment period on proposed regulations ends Jan. 11.

Some upstate residents and politicians argue that the gas industry will bring desperately needed jobs; Others demand a permanent ban on fracking to protect water supplies.

New York's State Department of Environmental Conservation weighed in quickly. As reported last week in the Wall Street Journal, DEC officials pointed out that the state's updated well-casing rules and proposed setbacks from water supplies would prevent contamination. Some of those rules were quickly adopted as a result of Pennsylvania's experience.

EPA's analysis of deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area's complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.

Findings from private and public drinking-water wells detected "methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds" and that "The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production." EPA's report also noted that the Wyoming wells and storage ponds for fracking chemicals were in sandstone geological formations.

Anti-frackers push for more federal control

Nonetheless, several environmental groups pounced on report. A New York City attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that the EPA now recognizes what other experts and families in fracked communities already know: "Fracking poses serious threats to safe drinking water."

Another attorney with the Earthjustice environmental advocacy group added: "This lays an oil and gas industry myth to rest once and for all. With this proof in hand, there must be absolutely no more delay in closing the loopholes that leave our drinking water sources vulnerable to toxic chemicals," she said.

Last week, American Agriculturist reported that extensive groundwater testing in Pennsylvania turned up no significant pollution by chemicals used in fracking Marcellus shale gas wells. After initial methane gas migration incidences early in the state's gas well development, the Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection beefed up its mandates for cementing of gas well casings, storage pond integrity and setbacks from water wells and water resources.