The Holy Grail: Drinking-water Contamination Confirmed in EPA Report Threatens U.S. Fracking Operations


Considering all the money oil and gas companies pay their PR strategists and crisis management gurus, industry officials should have known better than to proclaim with absolute certainty that “fracking,” the controversial natural gas extraction process, not only has not, but cannot, contaminate drinking-water supplies. They should have known to leave a little wiggle room should an “issue” arise. But their position has been unequivocal: Can’t happen – nowhere, no how, no way.

Well, for lack of a more cerebral retort – way!

Before we wade into exactly why frackers across the country are in full retreat, let’s review for a moment. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts (but it bears repeating), hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” an ultra-aggressive industrial process in which huge amounts of water, sand and a mixture of toxic chemicals are injected deep into the ground under extremely high pressure to create cracks and fissures in shale formations and thereby release the natural gas and oil trapped inside.

Although frackers have tried to keep secret the specific chemicals used in the process, scientists have identified a smorgasbord of toxins in “fracking fluid,” including known human carcinogens and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Those nasty substances – as well as naturally occurring radioactive material, like radium, brought to the surface with the gas and oil – can seep into nearby aquifers, rivers, streams and the atmosphere.

Obviously, the process poses a serious public health risk and a grave threat to the environment. Of course, frackers disagree, and like I said, their position has been definitive. A New York Times report from earlier in the week quotes Rex W. Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil at a congressional hearing on drilling that took place last year:

“There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one.”

That is, my good Mr. Tillerson, until now.

Unfortunately for the ExxonMobil CEO and the rest of the fracking world, Times reporter Ian Urbina just uncovered that which Tillerson and a bevy of other enablers have so emphatically denied exists. Urbina has laid his hands on what amounts to the Holy Grail of the anti-fracking movement – a documented report of an aquifer being contaminated by the fracking process. It’s a case from West Virginia that appears in a 1987 EPA report:

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson’s water well.”

“When fracturing the Kaiser gas well on Mr. James Parson’s property, fractures were created allowing migration of fracture fluid from the gas well to Mr. Parson’s water well,” according to the agency’s summary agency of the case. “This fracture fluid, along with natural gas was present in Mr. Parson’s water, rendering it unusable.”

As the Times points out, industry officials have long argued that fracking can’t contaminate drinking water because the toxic chemicals used in the process are injected thousands of feet deeper than the level of traditional aquifers. What that argument ignores is that abandoned wells can provide a clear passageway for fracking contaminants to leak into aquifers. From my previous post on the geological realities of fracking (see link to full post below):

Drilling companies employ fracking in old oil fields – many that were drilled before fracking was first utilized by Halliburton in the late 1940s – where the geological landscape has already been compromised by a network of oil wells. Although those old wells have been plugged, leaky well casings at the earth’s surface and faulty cement jobs can provide a direct conduit for toxic fracking fluids to seep back up to the relatively shallow level where drinking water wells reside. So, in reality, shale formations and drinking water wells are not separated by “solid rock,” as [frackers] would have us believe, but rather separated by rock riddled with the passageways of old wells.

The bombshell EPA report has many (including myself) alleging a coverup. More from the NYT article:

…the documented E.P.A. case, which has gone largely unnoticed for decades, includes evidence that many industry representatives were aware of it and also fought the agency’s attempts to include other cases in the final study.

Yes, you read that correctly: Many industry officials have known about the fracking-contamination connection for years, even decades – despite their denials. Further, there may very well be many other documented instances of contamination, but they’re hidden behind the veil of confidentiality in private settlements between drilling companies and private landowners. Those settled cases are held as confidential, but my guess is we’ll get a look at them eventually.

The Times quotes Carla Greathouse, the author of the, shall we say, inconvenient EPA report:

“I still don’t understand why industry should be allowed to hide problems when public safety is at stake… If it’s so safe, let the public review all the cases.”

Why not, if there’s nothing to hide? No wonder frackers are so adamantly opposed to conducting full environmental impact assessments in places like New York where Gov. Andrew Cuomo just lifted a ban on the practice.

In light of the documented risks fracking poses, it’s incumbent on the EPA and the states involved, to obtain the information that’s already exists regarding aquifer contamination. As the Times article indicates, the EPA and the states have the authority, through their subpoena power, to obtain information about these settlements, notwithstanding the private confidentiality agreements, and to determine whether there are more instances of aquifer contamination that the industry is concealing.

The public deserves to know what it’s up against when the frackers roll into town. Clearly industry officials have been doing their best to keep everyone in the dark (since at least 1987 it would seem).

In a world where few things can be known with absolute certainty, I can say with confidence that it just got a lot harder for frackers to shrug off environmental impact assessments as unwarranted and unnecessary exercises. And the conclusions of those evaluations may just be enough to put the brakes on the fastest growing sector of the new energy economy.

Read the the entire New York Times article here:

Read how abandoned wells provide a conduit for fracking contaminants to enter freshwater supplies:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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