In the debate over hydraulic fracturing, natural gas drillers have loudly proclaimed that there has never been a single documented case of drinking water contamination that was actually the result of the fracking process. The claim – which reasons that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, such contamination is impossible – has been pretty much taken as gospel by the state and federal regulators who have enabled the fracking booms now occurring in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.
Now, however, one case of well water contamination that occurred more than two decades ago in West Virginia is being cited to discredit the industry’s claims. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded in a 1987 study that fracking of a natural gas well in West Virginia had contaminated an underground drinking water source. According to the report, fracking gel used by Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company at a natural gas well drilled more than 4,000 feet deep had somehow turned up in a drinking water well in Jackson County, West Virginia. The water well, which was situated on the property of James Parsons, was located about 600 feet from the natural gas well.
“During the fracturing process,â€ EPA investigators wrote in the 1987 report, which focused on the handling of natural gas, oil and geothermal wastes generally, â€œfractures 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.â€
According to the Environmental Working Group, 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.
The EPA’s 1987 report to Congress was uncovered by Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice. According to a press release from the Environmental Working Group, its 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 to migrate into the water well.
The Environmental Working Group’s investigation also uncovered a document submitted in 1987 by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group that appeared to agree with the EPA finding but suggested that it was not typical.
â€œOne case,â€ the API wrote, referring to the West Virginia contamination case, â€œresulted in a workover operation fracturing into groundwater as a result of equipment failure or accident. As described in the detail write-up, this is not a normal result of fracturing as it ruins the productive capability of the wells.â€
So why is this only coming out now? According to the Environmental Working Group, the EPA’s investigation was hampered by confidentiality agreements that were part of settlements between industry and affected landowner. According to a report from The New York Times, current and former EPA officials say this practice continues to prevent them from fully assessing the risks of certain types of gas drilling.
“I still donâ€™t understand why industry should be allowed to hide problems when public safety is at stake,â€ Carla Greathouse, the author of the 1987 EPA report, told the Times. â€œIf itâ€™s so safe, let the public review all the cases.â€
Dan Derkics, a 17-year veteran of the EPA who oversaw the writing of the 1987 report, told The New York Times that the contamination of the Parsons’ well was not an isolated incident.
â€œI can assure you that the Jackson County case was not unique,â€ said Derkics, who retired from the agency in 1994. â€œThat is why the drinking water concerns are real.”