Fracking Associated with Well Water Toxics; Causation Not Yet Proven

September 15, 2010

Residents of the tiny town of Pavillion in west-central Wyoming may be the first US community to have an official EPA acknowledgment that its drinking water wells have been contaminated by nearby hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) operations used to extract natural gas, according to Gwen Lachelt, director of the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, 970-259-3353. But they're not there yet.

Fracking is a process that is used in the vast majority of current gas drilling operations, which occur in dozens of states. Many individuals and communities in fracking zones have reported water contamination, but there has been little in the way of official government acknowledgment that fracking is the cause.

In Pavillion, residents finally convinced EPA to take action after failing for several years to get state officials to do so. Based on the results of the second stage of the investigation, EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control told residents on Aug. 31, 2010, that many of the local water wells are indeed contaminated with numerous toxic substances. Many of the contaminants are commonly associated with gas extraction or are petroleum-based, including adamantanes, tri (2-butoxyethyl) phosphate, diesel range organics, gasoline range organics, caprolactam, methane, benzene, cyclohexane, methylcyclohexane, and propane.

All the aquifers in the area are known to be connected, and the US Geological Survey has said that contaminants used in oil and gas drilling in the area can potentially contaminate local water resources. The town has about 80 domestic wells and 8 municipal wells, at depths of about 50-800+ feet.

However, EPA is not yet saying that there is a definitive link between the contaminated water and the 211 active gas wells, 50 plugged, abandoned, or shut-in wells, and 37 pits that used to hold drilling fluids that are in the immediate area. That evidence, for or against, may not be available until at least early 2011, after additional groundwater and soil gas test results are in, says EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott, 303-312-6654. For more details on the testing process, contact Greg Oberley (303-312-7043).

In the interim, residents have been told they should not drink or cook with the water. The presence of methane (the main ingredient in natural gas) is so high that residents are also being told to ventilate any room in which a shower is operating, and to not ignite anything in a closed room in which water is running. The residents have been told that the water is safe for household purposes other than drinking or cooking. But activists working with the residents say that the contamination is severe enough that the residents shouldn't use the water for any purpose.

The company that does most of the drilling in the area, Encana, says it will work with residents to provide a safe alternative drinking water source. However, no progress had been made as of Sept. 10, 2010, says the Powder River Basin Resource Council's Deb Thomas, 307-645-3236). Nor have there been any efforts to provide residents with safer water for household use, she says.

On Sept. 10, 2010, Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal directed the Wyoming Water Development Commission to conduct a study to help determine possible long-term solutions for providing safer water. The study is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 1, 2011, and a potentially lengthy construction period may follow if work is approved and funded.

In a related development, on Sept. 9, 2010, EPA asked nine of the larger US gas extraction companies to voluntarily disclose the substances used in the fracking process, and to reveal health and environmental impact information and locations where the substances have been used. The targeted companies are BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford. The agency is asking the companies to say within seven days if they will provide the information, and to submit it within 30 days. If they don't, the agency says it will pursue forced disclosure.

In Wyoming, the state is establishing a mandatory reporting process for fracking substances and quantities that takes effect Sept. 15, 2010, though it's uncertain how much verification will occur with the self-reporting process.

The Pavillion investigation of drinking water contamination problems possibly related to fracking comes near the beginning of EPA's two-year effort to work through its assessment of the overall natural gas drilling situation and decide what the issues are and how to address them (see TipSheet of July 7, 2010).

As part of that effort, EPA is researching whether there has ever been a definitive link made between fracking and drinking water contamination. But the agency has no current plans to do testing similar to that done in Pavillion in any other areas prior to the completion of the two-year evaluation that is scheduled for completion in late 2012. For more information, contact EPA spokesman Jalil Isa, 202-564-3226.

The agency is taking this approach despite strikingly similar rashes of pollution incidents that have been popping up for several years in close proximity to fracking areas. The companies usually say no causality has been definitively proven. The residents lack the resources (and the specific information on the fracking substances used) to prove it. Government agencies have tended to be passive and unprepared to draw any conclusions. Regulation and enforcement by federal and state agencies of this kind of gas drilling are scant.

To date, the impact of big money from gas companies has been a stronger motivation for state agencies than the health concerns of citizens. But in this fall's elections, fracking issues (pollution and regulation) have actually become a hot-button issue in some districts: "Gas Drilling Becomes Election Issue in the 29th" and "Rural Pennsylvania Town Fights Big Gas."

For more information on gas drilling, including details on which states this occurs in, see the TipSheets of June 9, 2010 and Nov. 11, 2009.

In a related development, it appears that an air quality monitor may soon be installed in the Pavillion area to track a few air pollutants related to gas drilling, Thomas says. Residents are also asking for a speciated monitor that would identify concentrations of various individual substances such as certain volatile organic compounds, but that may or may not occur. The few existing monitors in Wyoming have already recorded very high ozone levels in recent years in gas drilling areas. Similar problems have occurred in relatively remote regions of states such as Colorado and New Mexico.