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 It has not yet been peer-reviewed by a panel of independent scientists.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