USGS Fracking Study Confirms Methane Contamination of Drinking Water in Pavillion, Wyoming

Mon, 2012-10-01 13:47Carol Linnitt
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USGS Fracking Study Confirms Methane Contamination of Drinking Water in Pavillion, Wyoming

For those concerned about the future of shale gas development in the U.S., water contamination present in a monitoring well in Wyoming is about to become the lynchpin in the debate over unconventional gas production and the threat fracking poses to drinking water.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) just released a report confirming the EPA's December 2011 findings that water in Pavillion, Wyoming contains contaminants related to fracking
 
After residents in the region complained of poor water odor and taste, the EPA established two deep water monitoring wells to determine if water quality concerns were related to fracking in the area. 
 
EPA’s analysis of samples taken from the Agency’s deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.
 
The EPA also took samples from additional private and public water wells where they found “methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds” that appeared “consistent with migration from areas of gas production.”
 
The EPA findings ignited significant backlash from the gas industry as well as prominent political supporters of unconventional gas development.
 
Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee suggested the EPA's findings were “part of President Obama's war on fossil fuels,” adding “EPA's conclusions are not based on sound science but rather on political science.”
 
Calgary's Encana Corp., Pavillion's gas operator, accused the EPA of failing to follow scientific protocol, calling the report “sloppy and inaccurate.” The company advertised their disappointment with the EPA study on a webpage called “Why Encana Refutes U.S. EPA Pavillion Groundwater Report.”
 
Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Thomas Doll said the EPA report “was issued with incomplete data and technically inadequate conclusions.” He added that “EPA's conclusions is now national and international fodder for the hydraulic fracturing debate,” suggesting the reputation of hydraulic fracturing itself hangs on the conclusions of such reports.
 
That being the case, this week's USGS report adds fuel to the fracking fire, bolstering the claims of landowners, independent scientists and environmental groups that fracking does indeed pose an incontrovertible threat to drinking water supplies.

With recurring studies confirming the dangers posed by the rush to exploit unconventional gas resources, companies and industry support groups will have to face public opposition with improved practices. Industry has generally resisted increased oversight, monitoring, and enforcement of best practices such as mandatory baseline surface and groudwater testing.
 
The gas industry maintains that fracking poses no threat to underground sources of drinking water and that no instances of water contamination have resulted from hydraulic fracturing operations.
 
Alisha Johnson, a spokeswoman with the EPA told Bloomberg that the USGS' findings are “generally consistent” with the EPA results. In addition to finding methane, diesel and gasoline compounds in Pavillion's aquifer, EPA also noted unlined wastewater pits were causing shallow water pollution with cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, and that fracking led to enhanced underground gas migration, where gas migrates into water-bearing zones.
 
According to a congressional report, Encana performed faulty well construction in the region with cement logs pointing to “an absence of cement, or only sporadic bonding between the cement, well casing, and formation, in several production wells.” Encana also failed to extend production casing of most of their wells below the deepest domestic water wells, meaning there was little vertical separation between frack zones and water well zones.
 
Gas industry lobbying group Energy In Depth has been on the defensive since the EPA released its study results in late 2011. Spokesman Steve Everley continues to attack the EPA findings, saying the USGS study only assessed samples from one of the EPA's monitoring wells, which he claims should call the integrity of the test wells into question.
 
The EPA findings, however, are based on raw data gathered from two deep monitoring wells, drilled by the EPA, as well as several pre-existing domestic and municipal water wells. The USGS report cited low water flow in one of EPA's monitoring wells which hindered data collection. 
 
That hindrance, according to Rob Jackson, professor of environmental science at Duke University, is not enough to discredit either of the studies. “You can't say the EPA botched the job if USGS goes on and gets similar numbers.”
 
The USGS findings come on the heels of a letter sent to Energy Secretary Steven Chu by 20 House Democrats, urging the government to conduct a thorough environmental review of fracking before any agreements are made to advance plans for large-scale gas export facilities. 
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