Sustained Outrage

Perhaps the most popular talking point for the oil and gas industry in West Virginia and across the country is that there have been no documented cases of contaminated drinking water linked to hydraulic fracturing.

A new report out today from the Environmental Working Group challenges that talking point — and points to a documented case of well-water contamination from West Virginia as its proof. The Washington, D.C.-based EWG says:

Contrary to the drilling industry claim that hydraulic fracturing has never contaminated groundwater, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in a 1987 study that “fracking” of a natural gas well in West Virginia contaminated an underground drinking water source. That all-but-forgotten report to Congress, uncovered by Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice, found that fracturing gel from a shale gas well more than 4,000 feet deep had contaminated well water.

EPA investigators concluded that the contamination was “illustrative” of a broader problem of pollution associated with hydraulic fracturing but said the agency’s investigation was hampered by confidentiality agreements between industry and affected landowners. Environmental Working Group’s year-long investigation of the incident found that several abandoned natural gas wells located near the fractured well in West Virginia could have served as conduits that allowed the gel, a common ingredient in fracking fluid, to migrate into the water well.

The EWG report, by the group’s senior counsel, Dusty Horwitt, summarized the incident this way:

In 1982, Kaiser Gas Co. drilled and hydraulically fractured a natural gas well on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W. Va. The EPA concluded in a 1987 report to Congress that the process contaminated Parsons’ water well with fracturing fluid. It is unclear how the “fracking” fluids may have entered the water well, but four old natural gas wells nearby could have been the conduits for contamination.

And it quotes the EPA report’s description:

In 1982, Kaiser Gas Co. drilled a gas well on the property of Mr. James Parsons. The well was fractured using a typical fracturing fluid or gel. The residual fracturing fluid migrated into Mr. Parson’s water well (which was drilled to a depth of 416 feet), according to an analysis by the West Virginia Environmental Health Services Lab of well water samples taken from the property. Dark and light gelatinous material (fracturing fluid) was found, along with white fibers. (The gas well is located less than 1,000 feet from the water well). The chief of the laboratory advised that the water well was contaminated and unfit for domestic use, and that an alternative source of domestic water had to be found. Analysis showed the water to contain high levels of fluoride, sodium, iron and manganese. The water, according to DNR officials, had a hydrocarbon odor, indicating the presence of gas. To date Mr. Parsons has not resumed use of the well as a domestic water source.

The incident is also featured in a story posted online today by The New York Times, which reports:

… The documented E.P.A. case, which has gone largely unnoticed for decades, includes evidence that many industry representatives were aware of it and also fought the agency’s attempts to include other cases in the final study.

Horwitt said:

When you add up the gel in the water, the presence of abandoned wells and the documented ability of drilling fluids to migrate through these wells into underground water supplies, there is a lot of evidence that EPA got it right and that this was indeed a case of hydraulic fracturing contamination of groundwater. Now it’s up to EPA to pick up where it left off 25 years ago and determine the true risks of fracking so that our drinking water can be protected.