Pavillion, WY – Smoking Gun that Proves Fracking is Unsafe?

smoking gunOn Thursday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released draft findings of its investigation into groundwater contamination in the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming (a copy of the EPA draft report is embedded below). The EPA says that water in the town contains chemicals consistent with chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Fracking has been used in a number of nearby gas wells. Needless to say, major media outlets like the AP, and anti-drilling environmentalists, are breathlessly calling this the “smoking gun” and declaring that fracking really does cause groundwater contamination after all (ban it now!). Not so fast…

According to the EPA’s own press release, here is what they have found:

Findings in the Two Deep Water Monitoring Wells:
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.

Findings in the Private and Public Drinking Water Wells:
EPA also updated its sampling of Pavillion area drinking water wells. Chemicals detected in the most recent samples are consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples and include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA’s data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place and Encana has been funding the provision of alternate water supplies.(1)

Here are the facts as we know them:

  1. This report is preliminary. It has not yet been peer-reviewed by a panel of independent scientists.
  2. The compounds EPA says are from fracking have other known sources as well. EPA’s own language says the chemicals “may have come” from fracking.
  3. A possible source of chemicals, according to the report, is from nearby open pits where flowback wastewater is stored, not from the bore hole itself.
  4. Methane is naturally occurring in local water supplies, so identifying that as coming from fracking is a non-starter.
  5. The EPA itself emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area and said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differs from fracking used in other regions with a different geology.(2)
  6. The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells. Elsewhere, fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater.(2)
  7. The geology under Pavillion where the fracking was done is sandstone, not shale. Tightly-packed shale layers prevent water from rising back to the surface. Sandstone is porous.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that fracking caused water wells in the Pavillion area to become contaminated. If that’s the case, it is tragic and needs to be addressed immediately—no question about it. But there is one overpowering bit of logic that anti-drillers cannot seem to wrap their minds around: This is one case where the fracking occurred close to water supplies in a non-shale geology. If fracking is the evil they make it out to be, if indeed it contaminates water supplies wherever it’s done, then why has not happened in tens of thousands of other communities throughout the country where it’s been done?

It stands to reason there will be an isolated case here and there, but really folks, chemical contamination from fracking just is not happening on a large scale—not even on a regular scale, not even one percent of the time! Keep Pavillion in perspective. One place in the entire country, and the fracking was close to water supplies, and it isn’t even yet proven that fracking is the source of contamination. Let’s inject a little science and common sense into the process before making a blanket statement about the hazards of fracking.

(1) EPA Press Release (Dec 8, 2011) – EPA Releases Draft Findings of Pavillion, Wyoming Ground Water Investigation for Public Comment and Independent Scientific Review

(2) AP/Athens Banner-Herald (Dec 9, 2011) – APNewsBreak: EPA theorizes fracking-pollution link

  • Anonymous

    But perception is everything.A year from now if it turns out  the water contamination in Pavillion was caused by another source other than fracking ,it will show up on page 14 of the paper or not mentioned at all. This can not be allowed to fester.
     The industry must be aggressive at making publicly announced changes that remove the perceived environmental problems associated with fracturing. These should include replacing all toxic chemical with nontoxic or biodegradable products for fracking; decontaminate water on site, prevent methane leakage at well clean-up and be transparent with local residents. Another way would be to switch to LPG fracking that avoids all of those problems and take public credit for finding  a ‘greener ‘ method of fracking.

  • When groundwater contamination occurs during the fracking process, more often than not it can be traced back to corner-cutting or human error in the construction of drill casings. Cabot, for example, has been fined repeatedly for precisely this thing. PADEP has not engendered a great deal of public trust in the issues of water and air pollution since it has traditionally allowed industry to largely regulate itself. those of us who live near abandoned, AMD-belching cola mines, and/or who live with the deleterious side effects of longwall coal mining know precisely the lackadaisical attitude to expect from PADEP, and are more inclined to trust EPA than state regulators, who, at the behest of their political overlords, let enforcement slide, to the detriment of landowners. I say this even though my late father was a 50-year man with J&Ls bankrupt coal division, which left an environmental disaster behind in Greene County.  

  • Anonymous

    “If fracking is the evil they make it out to be, if indeed it contaminates water supplies wherever it’s done, then why has not happened in tens of thousands of other communities throughout the country where it’s been done?”

    You answered that one yourself! The wells are closer to the surface than other wells around the country. Not to mention (at least you don’t mention it) that many of these wells were drilled 40 years ago. That’s how long it takes for the contamination to get to the groundwater. 

    Pavillion is just the first dead canary to arrive from below. Give it another few years, and lots more will be showing up. 

  • Anonymous

    In the Wall Street Journal Friday, their article on the contamination in Pavillion Wy.  said the  gas wells in the area were less than 1900 ft while water wells in same area were as deep as 800ft. Also sandstone does not provide the capping  and sealing effect that layers of shale provide. Marcellus is 3 to 8 thousand ft down and the Utica is  thousands of feet deeper in  the southern tier of New York. Big difference!

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  • Anonymous

    The WV legislature has been called into a special session as of today, 12/11/11 to consider the Governor’s proposed Horizontal fracking bill using the state’s Joint Select Committee on Marcellus Shale’s adopted amendments.  The proposed bill, Committe’s and Governor’s only requires a gas well restriction of 250 feet from the well head, not the edge of the pad, from private water sources like springs and water wells. To add insult to injury, the governor wants to allow pits to be buried on the property owner’s land!  If I wanted to hook up to an alternate water source if mine became contaminated, well, there is no public water in my area which means it would have to be hauled in.  Who wants to live like that? Goodby property value and potential buyers for the property.  And what will the bank do which holds the mortgage when it finds out there is no domestic water available, particularly if the mortgage is held on the secondary mortgage market. Why are we rushing into things with this kind of fracking when the jury is still out on its safety?

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