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Decades-Old EPA Report Blamed Fracking for Tainted West Virginia Water Well

Aug 4, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

A 1987 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailed a case of well water contamination in West Virginia that the agency said was the result of a nearby hydraulic fracturing operation.  The discovery of the report has prompted one environmental group to question industry assertions that the fracking process has never been associated with an instance of drinking water contamination.

A year long investigation conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Earth Justice uncovered the EPA report, which detailed the 1984 incident. According to a statement from the groups, evidence in the West Virginia case was consistent with pollution from hydraulic fracturing, though it is possible that another stage of the drilling process caused the problem.

According to the 1987 EPA report, fracking gel used by Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company to frack a natural gas well turned up in water well located on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, West Virginia.  The natural gas well, which was drilled to a depth of more than 4,000 feet, was located about 600 feet from Parsons' well. The Environmental Working Group and Earth Justice found that several abandoned natural gas wells located near the fractured well in West Virginia could have served as conduits that allowed the gel to migrate into the water well. 

"During the fracturing process,” EPA investigators wrote in the 1987 report, which focused on the handling of natural gas, oil and geothermal wastes generally, “fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well. When this happens, the water well can be permanently damaged and a new well must be drilled or an alternative source of drinking water found.”

The Environmental Working Group's investigation also uncovered a document submitted in 1987 by the industry group, American Petroleum Institute that appeared to agree with the EPA finding but suggested that it was not typical.

“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,” Dusty Horwitt, the Environmental Working Group’s senior oil and gas analyst and author of the group's report on the EPA’s finding, said in a statement. “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.”

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