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Hydraulic Fracturing Associated with Well Water Methane

Jun 25, 2013

Hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—has long been associated with fear of contaminated drinking water. Now, a new study has uncovered an association between leaking drill sites and contaminated drinking water wells.

The study, which focused on New York and Pennsylvania homes, revealed that drinking-water wells located near fracking sites were six times likelier to be contaminated than wells not located near fracking sites, according to Chillico the Gazette.

Fracking for natural gas involves injecting tons of silica sand mixed with water and a blend of more than 600 chemicals into an underground concrete well that extends to an underground bed of shale rock. When the mixture reaches the rock, it blasts the shale apart, releasing natural gas that is supposed to return to the surface where it is captured.

Critics have long argued that this type of drilling devastates the environment and contaminates groundwater, underground water aquifers, and nearby fresh water supplies. Either due to shoddy wells, poorly trained well workers, or a questionable drilling process altogether, natural gas and the contents of the drilling fluid may be released underground through cracks in the wells or fractures created by the drilling. This, many area residents closest to wells believe, contaminates water supplies, in some cases rendering water completely contaminated.

With natural gas production up 30 percent since 2005, these concerns are gaining traction. In fact, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review of well safety is in progress and scheduled for release in 2014.

The current study, just released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Robert Jackson of Duke University. The research involved a sampling of 141 drinking water wells across northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, according to Chillico the Gazette. The results build on a 2011 study that first linked proximity to fracking wells with drinking water contaminated by methane.

"It is looking like we are seeing a problem with well construction in some places and not others," Jackson says. The study found that methane was likelier to contaminate drinking water wells within about 1,000 feet of fracking sites; it also found propane in 10 nearby wells and noticed that ethane gas was 23 times likelier to be seen in homes “similarly” close to fracking sites, according to Chillico the Gazette. Jackson notes that ethane and propane are fracking signatures.

The gases likely escaped from leaks in the steel or concrete case lining found in the wellbore—the uppermost part of the natural gas wells. Jackson says the research largely confirms that methane seen in area wells originated from fracking and revealed an increase in water well contamination near older fracking sites, according to Chillico the Gazette.

Meanwhile, a recently released drilling review found water damage and questionable testing methods in many cases involving oil and gas activity. State environmental regulators found, according to a Times-Tribune/Sunday Times report, that between 2008 and 2012, oil and gas development activity harmed the water supplies of about 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches, and businesses.

Pennsylvania and New York sit atop part of the massive Marcellus shale formation that is thought to contain billions of dollars in natural gas reserves. As gas drilling has expanded and thousands of wells have been opened in just the past few years, residents from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, and New Jersey have raised concerns over the safety of drilling. While some believe drilling is an answer to the economic downturn and energy dependence, more believe drilling puts the fresh water supplies for millions of people at risk, with the risk greatest for those living closest to the drilling boom.

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