New Study: Fracking Contaminates US Water Wells

Wed, 2013-06-26 08:00Stephen Leahy
Stephen Leahy's picture

New Study: Fracking Contaminates US Water Wells

gas fracking rig

Drinking water is being contaminated by fracking for natural gas a new US study revealed Monday. More than 80% of drinking water wells at homes within 1 kilometre of active gas drilling operations had an average of 6 times more methane than those further away. The study also found more ethane and propane in water wells.

The study's take home message: The further your drinking water source is from fracking operations the safer it is likely to be said Robert Jackson of Duke University, the lead author of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science study.

“Distance matters when it comes to reducing the risk of water contamination,” Jackson told DeSmog.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking occurs at least 50% of all gas wells in the US. This roughly the same in British Columbia and Alberta. First the gas well is drilled vertically 200 to 3,000 metres deep into gas-bearing shale rock and then horizontally for 1,000 metres or more along the shale formation. Then a toxic mix of chemicals and millions of litres of water are pumped underground at high enough pressure to fracture the shale, releasing the gas into the pipeline.

Although the gas industry has long denied that fracking contaminates water wells and aquifers, hundreds of claims have been made over the industry's 20 plus years of operation. Even though the use of fracking dramatically increased in the last eight years very little independent research has been done on the environmental impacts.

First Water Studies Done In 2011

Researchers at Duke University were the first to independently study water contamination. In 2011 they looked at 68 fracking sites in the Marcellus shale region in the northeast US. They found groundwater with methane concentrations 17 times higher than in wells located where fracking was not taking place. Some of the recorded amounts were higher than “immediate action” hazard levels.

This year Duke researchers wanted to trace back the source and cause of the water contamination. They analyzed the concentrations and special 'chemical fingerprints' of methane, ethane, and propane in 141 private water wells in six counties in northeastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York. The fingerprint work is key to knowing if these gases came from natural sources or were the result of fracking. 

Of the 141 water wells measured within one kilometre of drilling operations, 82% contained high levels of methane. Twelve of these wells showed “immediate action” hazard levels. About one third also had high levels of propane and ethane. Both are hazardous and flammable gases.

The cause of this widespread contamination is likely poor well construction, said Jackson. Unlike conventional gas production, fracking uses very high pressures. It is likely faulty steel casings and poor cement sealing were behind the leakage into nearby waterwells he said.

The study also found the older the well the more likely it is to leak.

New Alberta Report Documents Widespread Water Contamination

“The Duke study is an incredible affirmation of my work,” said Jessica Ernst, an Alberta-based environmental consultant.

“The industry and the regulators know there is lots of water contamination happening but continue to lie about it to the public,” Ernst told DeSmog.

They still parrot the same lie that there never has been a case of water contamination.”

An oil and gas consultant for 30 years, Ernst released a 93-page report last week documenting many cases of groundwater contamination from fracking operations.

“It's happening every where…there is plenty of proof if you know where to look,” she said.

Ernst said her water was contaminated when industry giant EnCana used fracking between 2001 and 2004 near her home in Rosebud just west of Calgary.

My taps were whistling from all the gas. I could not believe I no longer had access to safe water.”

She filed a $33 million dollar lawsuit against EnCana in 2007. The case is still before the courts.

Government regulators and the gas industry are “terrified” of potential liability from contaminating water that would cost them billions of dollars said Ernst.

Fracking uses huge amounts of energy and water and no one has ever done a cumulative impact study of the more than 100,000 wells fracked in Alberta. Every year up to 15,000 new oil and gas wells are drilled.

Albertans are fearful of speaking out against the oil and gas industry she said. “I lost my career and my former colleagues fear the same.”

People here also believe contamination is the price of prosperity.” 

Image Credit: Encana

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fracking in BC, Dawson Creek

Although city officials from Dawson’s Creek won’t disclose the names of the companies involved, they are confirming that fracking waste has been illegally dumped into the city’s water treatment system on at least two occasions.

Jim Chute, administrative officer for the city, told DeSmog Canada, that illegal dumping has occurred at least three times, but twice the waste was “clearly” related to fracking.

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