USEPA Draft Report Indicates Likely Ground Water Contamination From Fracking

This post was written by Mark Mustian.

On December 8, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Region 8 released a draft report detailing the results from an investigation of suspected ground water contamination from natural gas drilling and gas production near Pavillion, Wyoming. After four rounds of sampling, detailed analysis, and an evaluation of various explanations, USEPA concluded that "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." Furthermore, EPA stated that the data suggested "enhanced migration of gas has occurred within groundwater at depths used for domestic water to supply and to domestic wells." In its study, USEPA measured a variety of organic compounds, including benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, and diesel range organics. USEPA also measure measured pH, alkalinity and inorganic chemical compounds which were indicative of chemicals used in fracking solutions. The concentrations and depth profiles were such that USEPA was unable to identify an alternative contamination scenario which would explain the findings. The explanation which best fit the facts was that "inorganic and organic constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have contaminated ground water supply at and below the depth used for domestic water supply."

Though opponents of hydraulic fracturing may seize upon this report as proof of the dangers of shale gas production, it is important to look beyond the surface of this report to understand that the situation in Pavillion, Wyoming is unique, and is not indicative of conditions in other parts of the country. Hydraulic fracturing in the Pavillion gas field occurred within zones of gas which were located within an underground source of drinking water. Hydraulic fracturing occurred at unusually shallow depths in the region, while many domestic water wells are screened unusually deep. USEPA's review of well completion reports showed instances of poor cement bonding on the completed wells. Furthermore, the geology of the region shows little lateral and vertical continuity of hydraulically fractured tight sandstones and no laterally continuous shale units to stop upward vertical migration of constituents of hydraulic fracturing. Finally, there were numerous unlined surface pits in the area used for storage of drilling wastes and produced water. In other words, the conditions in the region were unique and not like the conditions present in other parts of the country where hydraulic fracturing is utilized.

The report is interesting, and in some ways, useful. But it is just one link in a long chain of information which much be collected in order to properly understand the possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas production.

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