Report ties ‘fracking’ to W.Va. well contamination

August 3, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.

9 Responses to “Report ties ‘fracking’ to W.Va. well contamination”

  1. Bill Howley says:

    I read this report as linked to in the NY Times today. The description of the situation in Jackson County is very incomplete, and was referred to only in passing in wide ranging report that criticized a number of practices in the oil and gas industry.

    The diagram on the EWG Web site shows clearly that the migration of well fluids into the water bearing stratum came from poorly done or damaged casing in a neighboring gas well. This contamination was not “caused” by fracturing. It was “caused” by bad casing.

    I was willing to give EWG and the NY Times the benefit of the doubt on this story until I saw the EWG diagram. This story does nothing to “prove” that “fracking” caused contamination of the water well. See for yourself at this link — http://www.ewg.org/reports/cracks-in-the-facade

    Look at the picture and you will see clearly that EWG’s diagram directly contradicts the claims in their discussion of the situation.

    This well appears to have been drilled to “about 4000 feet” which means that this is probably a well drilled to the Upper Huron formation in the Devonian shale series. These wells were drilled all over WV in the 1970s and 1980s and are still being drilled today in areas where the Upper Huron has proven productive. Most of these wells are drilled as conventional vertical wells and are fractured with liquid nitrogen, not water plus chemicals as are used in Marcellus shale wells.

    To describe this well as a “shale well” is accurate, but also misleading, because the Upper Huron formation is much different from Marcellus shale, which is a very consolidated “tight” shale. The Marcellus shale is also at the very bottom of the Devonian shales, several hundred feet below the Upper Huron in most of WV.

    There was also no description of the kind of fracturing used in the well production, just a vague reference to a “gel” which might also apply to drilling mud, nor is there any specific description of what chemicals may have been used. Apart from WV Dept. of Energy assurances that the casing was done to state regulations, there is no discussion of whether or how casing problems could have caused the migration of well fluids into Mr. Parsons’ drinking water well.

    I am disturbed that this story is getting so much play as refuting prior claims that no evidence exists connecting hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus wells to water well contamination. If we are going to push for stronger regulation of Marcellus drilling, we need to provide accurate information, not claims at are so obviously incorrect. It is embarrassing that EWG would publish a diagram that directly contradicts the claims it is making in its written article.

  2. Tim Higgins says:

    Ken, A controvery in the making to say the least. This is why the permit fee needs to be raised to a $1 per foot to total depth so more inspectors can be hired with a salary just above the industry standard. That’s the only way to keep quality people. That way these wells can be inspected in every part of the drilling and cementing process to insure a quality job. Think Haliburton in the Gulf in this case. A youtube searth on marcellus blowouts should be enough for anyone to understand.

    Marcellus drilling is here to stay and that in my mind is sad, but lets make sure effective regulations are in place so if / when something goes wrong the persons responsibly can be held accountable.

  3. S. T. Bond says:

    Naw, naw, naw! This kind of reasoning is sophisticated in the worst sense of the word. If the fracturing had not been done, the contamination would not have occurred. The water well owner was victimized by the initiative of the driller who fractured the well, not the driller years before who did poor casing. The water well owner enjoyed the use of his well in the intervening period. It was the present action of the fracturing which made the well useless.

    This is a tactic of the shale drilling and fracturing people to avoid responsibility for what they do. Go into any area where shale fracturing has been done and there are many stories like this. This strained argument is used over and over to avoid responsibility.

    If a well has been in use for years with no problem and there is a change within a few weeks or months of fracturing, the fracturing did it. Period.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for your comment.

    A couple of points …

    1. The EWG report does indeed provide details about exactly what formation was being drilled here:

    “By Aug. 25, Kaiser had bored through ten layers of shale, limestone and sandstone to complete the 4,572-foot-deep well, which reached a Devonian Brown Shale formation that is similar to the shale formations where companies are drilling for natural gas today.”

    That’s on page 10 of the .pdf

    2. They also provided details of how the fracturing was done in this instance:

    On Aug. 31, Kaiser fractured the well in the pay zone with more than 13,000 gallons of water, 60,000 pounds of sand and 760,000 standard cubic feet of nitrogen injected at a pressure of up to 3,100 pounds per square inch.21 [By comparison,
    water generally flows through a fire hose at between 100 and 150 pounds per square inch.

    That’s also on page 10.

    (These details were also made clear in our print story today, http://wvgazette.com/News/marcellus/201108031067 ).

    While those details were not described in the EPA report, EWG did footnote their report and list the sources of the information. They posted them on their website, and the Times included the rest of the source documents on its site as well.

    3. There’s also a fairly detailed discussion in the EWG report, starting on page 17, which describes what the EWG investigators believe happened, and links to their source documents and describes the experts and regulators they talked to about it. They also discussed an alternative theory and explained why they discounted it.

    You write that:

    “This contamination was not “caused” by fracturing. It was “caused” by bad casing.”

    My reading of the EWG report and the source documents the cite, is that it was actually a combination of the two things — fracturing and bad casing — that EWG believes led to this incident. And in fact, their diagram accurately represents what they describe in their report, and even the more general and much shorter description in their press release:

    “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.”
    http://www.ewg.org/release/epa-report-fracking-contaminated-drinking-water

    And if you read the Times’ story, it actually is framed pretty well … Ian Urbina writes:

    “For decades, oil and gas industry executives as well as regulators have maintained that a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is used for most natural gas wells has never contaminated underground drinking water.
    “The claim is based in part on a simple fact: fracking, in which water and toxic chemicals are injected at high pressure into the ground to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there, occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers. Because of that distance, the drilling chemicals pose no risk, industry officials have argued.”

    And then he continues in the story:

    “The [EPA] report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson’s water well.”
    “When fracturing the Kaiser gas well on Mr. James Parson’s property, fractures were created allowing migration of fracture fluid from the gas well to Mr. Parson’s water well,” according to the agency’s summary of the case. “This fracture fluid, along with natural gas was present in Mr. Parson’s water, rendering it unusable.”

    I get the notion that you’re really hung up on activists and media using the term “fracking” or “fracturing” (or “fracing”) as a bit of shorthand for what happens with modern natural gas drilling these days. And I would be the first to agree that we in the mainstream media often don’t do a great job with short-hand on such things. We need to do better.

    But your criticisms — especially worded as harshly as they are — in this case are off base.

    One thing is certain: This 1987 EPA report is fascinating reading … and if you followed earlier reporting by ProPublica about these issues, you know that there’s quite a controversy over more recent EPA studies from 2005, which were used to support this kind of drilling. http://www.propublica.org/article/buried-secrets-is-natural-gas-drilling-endangering-us-water-supplies-1113

    The newly public 1987 EPA report shows quite a different picture, yet was not really referenced in the more recent documents.

    Ken.

  5. Bill Howley says:

    Both EWG and Mr. Urbina presented this 1987 case as refutation of the claim that there have been no documented cases of water well contamination from hydraulic fracturing where fracing fluids rose up through other geologic layers and got into upper level later aquifers. The Parsons case is simply not an example of this kind of contamination.

    Your more detailed reading bears out my original surmises. This was primarily a nitrogen frac. The amounts of water you indicate are miniscule in relation to current Marcellus hydraulic fracturing. The Devonian brown shale is one of the shale levels above the Marcellus which is not classified as a tight shale. That is why the well could be fraced with nitrogen and not “slick water” as with Marcellus wells.

    This is not a “refutation” of the industry’s claim that there are no documented cases of direct communication between Marcellus fracturing and upper level water aquifers, for the following reasons: (1) this is not a Marcellus well (2) the fracturing was done primarily with liquid nitrogen and (3) communication of fracing fluids with water aquifers took place through existing well bores, not directly through fractured rock layers.

    The Parsons case is just what the EPA said it was — a problem with well casing failure under the high pressures generated by conventional fracturing in a heavily drilled field. The solutions to this problem are different from many of the problems we face today with Marcellus wells.

    It is vitally important avoid sloppy thinking with regard to our current situation so that citizens and politicians can make good decisions. The situation with management of existing wells and well casing cries out urgently for more inspectors and more inspections during the drilling process.

    We have clear proof, throughout the history of WV gas drilling, that bad casing causes water well contamination, and Marcellus fracturing, because it uses massive amounts of water and very high pressures, has and will cause more casing blowouts. But Marcellus drilling and fracturing alone does not cause water well contamination. EWG’s and Mr. Urbina’s implications that this is the case are simply not accurate.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for the continued discussion … I’ve been waiting to see what was reported on this by ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten, in my view the best journalist covering these issues. Here’s his story:

    http://www.propublica.org/article/does-an-old-epa-fracking-study-provide-proof-of-contamination … He writes:

    “For years the drilling industry has steadfastly insisted that there has never been a proven case in which fracking has led to contamination of drinking water …
    The circumstances of this particular well are not unique [4]. There are several other cases across the country where evidence suggests similar contamination has occurred and many more where the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing have contaminated water supplies on the surface. ProPublica has written about many of them in the course of a three-year investigation [5] into the safety of drilling for natural gas.
    “But the language found in the EPA report made public Wednesday is the strongest articulation yet by federal officials that there is a direct causal connection between man-made fissures thousands of feet underground and contaminants found in well water gone bad. The explanation, presented in the EPA’s own words, stands in stark contrast to recent statements made by EPA officials that they could not document a proven case of contamination and a 2004 EPA report [4] which concluded that fracturing was safe. ”

    The story continues:

    “Though the EPA, along with West Virginia officials, concluded that fracturing caused the contamination studied in its 1987 paper, the documents from the agency’s investigation contain many of the same ambiguities that have allowed the industry to continue to deny a link between water contamination and fracking. In the West Virginia case, for example, officials did not collect chemical samples of the drilling fluids used for fracturing and therefore could not test the contaminated water for the presence of those chemicals. Officials noted that they did not have sufficient time to fully investigate that case.”

    Importantly, Abrahm writes:

    “In many of the contamination cases ProPublica has documented across the nation — including dozens in which methane contamination [7] reached water wells and at least a thousand in which water was otherwise contaminated in fracking areas — the drilling industry and environment officials have blamed well construction, rather than the fracking process. The industry has used this finding to argue that that better well construction is enough to make drilling safer, and to argue against federal regulation of fracking ”

    AND:

    “In the case studied in the EPA’s 1987 report, Horwitt said, nothing in the record indicates that there was a leak or other problem in the well casing, leaving an abandoned well as the likely pathway for contaminants to migrate into drinking water. There are millions of such abandoned wells [9] around the country. ”

    Bill — you write:
    “The Parsons case is just what the EPA said it was — a problem with well casing failure under the high pressures generated by conventional fracturing in a heavily drilled field.”

    Where did EPA say that?

    All that I saw in the EPA report that could have suggested that was this quote from the American Petroleum Industry’s comments on the EPA draft:

    “API states that this damage resulted from a malfunction of the fracturing process.”

    Ken.

  7. Dave Cassell says:

    No doubt there is a link between fracturing, well casings and contamination. But lets be clear. Increasing the number of inspectors will not solve the problem. Without compliance to either API or ASTM standards for cement and casing practices, inspectors don’t have a leg to stand on. I asked the joint committee to add this to the regulations at a public hearing in Morgantown last month, but obviously the industry has pressured the committee to avoid this. Its time for the industry to stand up and act in a responsible manner. Over and over we hear from the independent drillers association in West Virginia about how they want to do the right thing. Talk is cheap, how about some real action and committment.

  8. Bill Howley says:

    Ken,

    My statement about the well contamination being what EPA said it was came from their description of the details of the incident. That is what they described — fracing that broke into a nearby gas well, casing failure in that gas well that contaminated the water well.

    Recent studies of Marcellus hydraulic fracturing, including the Duke study that you covered here in Sustained Outrage in May, have not conclusively demonstrated any direct flow of fracturing fluids up through intervening strata to drinking water aquifers. The researchers in the Duke study did note that there were some geologic formations in New York state that might allow this kind of communication, but they noted that there was no data indicating this had ever occurred.

    I only take issue with the claim, indicated in both the EWG article and Urbina’s NYT article, that the 1987 EPA report represents this kind of drinking water contamination. It does not. All of the reports of contamination from Marcellus wells has occurred through well bores and escaped because of poor casing.

    Casing failure is a real and continuing problem for the gas industry. Failed casings and cement jobs have been destroying water wells in West Virginia for over one hundred years, at well pressures far below those used in the 1987 Parsons incident. Sloppy and dangerous cementing caused the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

    There is extensive evidence, the Duke study being the latest, of contamination of water wells because of failed casing and cement work on Marcellus wells. This is a proven problem that needs to be dealt with now.

    Searching for some holy grail that will prove direct migration of fracing fluids from gas formations to aquifers is a distraction from the real and immediate problem — sloppy and dangerous casing work. This problem has been with the gas industry from the beginning. The Marcellus drilling is different only because the fracing pressures are so much higher and because of the massive amounts of water injected into wells.

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