EPA finally acknowledges fracking dangers

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 by: Tara Green
Tags: EPA, fracking, well water

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(NaturalNews) The Environmental Protection Agency on December 7 released its first report linking fracking to water contamination. The report identified fracking as the source of poisons, including the carcinogen benzene, in the groundwater of a central Wyoming community.

Something in the water

Pavillion, Wyoming is a small community of 174 people located on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The town sits in the middle of the state's huge gas patch which companies such as Encana Oil & Gas, Noble Energy and ConocoPhillips have turned into drilling fields. Since the mid-90s, more than 200 gas wells have been drilled near the small town. Approximately ten years ago, members of the rural community also observed new illnesses in local livestock. Around the same time, they also noticed their well water had a strange smell and taste, "like a cross between something dead and diesel fuel" as one resident describes it.

What the feds found

More than 20 Pavillion well owners contacted the EPA over the course of a decade, requesting a study of their groundwater. The agency began looking into the problem in 2009, beginning its research by taking samples from privately owned wells and municipal wells. They found low levels of methane and hydrocarbons, including diesel, in the groundwater.

Although the chemical levels did not exceed drinking water standards, the EPA felt there was cause for concern and advised Pavillion residents to use alternate water sources. (Currently, natural gas drilling company Encana delivers a water supply for 21 households in the area.) The federal agency moved to the next stage of testing, drilling two monitoring wells and analyzing waste pits for possible contamination. The EPA investigation ultimately yielded evidence of benzene, xylenes and hydrocarbon in the Pavillion's groundwater.

The report resulting from the EPA's Wyoming investigation is the first to analyze multiple, on-the-ground samples to determine the impact of fracking on underground water resources in areas of oil and gas development. The report is a draft of a comprehensive study the EPA study scheduled for release late 2012.

Industrial excuses

The three gas companies most heavily involved in WY drilling are Encana Oil & Gas, Noble Energy and ConocoPhillips. Encana called the EPA report "speculation" and refuted its conclusions. "We didn't put those compounds there, nature did" said a company spokesperson. The natural gas company also proffered the theory that the EPA's own monitoring drills were responsible for the contamination.

The EPA's study found that fracking is the most likely explanation for the presence of chemicals in the water: "Alternative explanations were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." The agency notes that it exercised care in its own drilling procedures to avoid any contamination. The federal agency's report also faulted the natural gas companies for "shoddy drilling practices" noting inconsistent cementing of the steel casing lining the inside of well bores which could cause leakage.

The past and future of fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves high pressure injection of chemical and sand-infused water into shale formations in order to unlock reservoirs of natural gas. Formerly practiced only in very remote areas, the use of this technique has expanded in recent years as the energy industry has stepped up its search for new sources of gas. Environmentalists have long pointed out the dangers fracking poses to both above and below-ground bodies of water. With the increase in fracking into more populated areas, the controversy has grown, with environmentalists demanding greater responsibility from natural gas companies, and industry apologists insisting fracking poses no health dangers.

EPA notes that the underlying geology of the Wyoming gas deposit differs from other natural gas formations across the country. The hydraulic fracturing near Pavillion happened much closer to the surface, and to drinking water sources, when compared with the fracking in other areas. The agency says that the environmental consequences of fracking in other regions of the country still have to be analyzed. The EPA recently launched a nationwide study of effects of fracking on drinking water.

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