Independent Analysis Confirms That Hydraulic Fracturing Caused Drinking Water Contamination In Wyoming

by Jessica Goad

A recent study from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that chemicals from hydraulic fracturing had contaminated groundwater has just been validated by an independent hydrology expert.

The impact of natural gas drilling — particularly hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — on drinking water and groundwater has been heavily debated. It has also been one of the most serious PR issues for the oil and gas industry.

In December 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency found official evidence that poisonous chemicals from fracking had contaminated water near drill rigs in Pavillion, Wyoming. That study has now been backed up by an independent expert. In a report released today, commissioned by several environmental groups, Dr. Tom Myers writes that:

After consideration of the evidence presented in the EPA report and in URS (2009 and 2010), it is clear that hydraulic fracturing (fracking [Kramer 2011]) has caused pollution of the Wind River formation and aquiferThe EPA’s conclusion is sound.

Myers then details the Pavillion area’s unique geology and water pathways, as well as the shoddy construction of the wells that likely contributed to water contamination.  He also outlines a number of ways that EPA can improve on its analysis and continue to collect critical data.

When EPA released the draft findings last December, the natural gas industry and its elected allies were quick to pounce and attacked it as “scientifically questionable,” “reckless,” and lacking  “a definitive conclusion.”

Importantly, Myers notes in his report that:

The situation at Pavillion is not an analogue for other gas plays because the geology and regulatory framework may be different.

Nevertheless, it is a reminder for politicians like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe who continue to claim that there has “never been one case — documented case — of groundwater contamination.”

However, the lack of public data makes it difficult to gather evidence of drinking water contamination.  As New York Times reporter Ian Urbina noted in an investigation last August, researchers often are:

…unable to investigate many suspected cases because their details were sealed from the public when energy companies settled lawsuits with landowners.

The oil and gas industry is exempt from portions of a number of environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act.

Jessica Goad is Manager of Research and Outreach for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

8 Responses to Independent Analysis Confirms That Hydraulic Fracturing Caused Drinking Water Contamination In Wyoming

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for this. I guess the film from Gasland of tap water catching fire weren’t convincing enough.

    Besides existing contamination, nobody seems to be addressing this for the long term. If explosives and powerful chemicals are being injected deep underground, fissures may show up later, as weakened rock formations give way. We could be condemning massive water supplies for our descendants without even knowing about it. Or, as reflected in the various oil and gas exemptions from regulation, not wanting to know about it.

  2. John Tucker says:

    Far be it from me to be the board radiation ninny, but I think where the noticeable methane and other chemical m migration is occurring in drinking water people should be concerned about dissolved radon, radium and uranium.

    One study BEFORE widespread frackling in Pennsylvania gave the following results:

    “The median concentration of radon-222 in ground water from the 534 wells was 1,400 pCi/L (picocuries per liter). About 89 percent of the wells sampled contained
    radon-222 at concentrations greater than
    300 pCi/L, and about 11 percent of the wells sampled contained radon-222 at oncentrations greater than 5,000 pCi/L. The highest concentration measured was 53,000 pCi/L.” ( )

    The USEPA action level for radon is 4.0 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) [safety guidelines constant exposures are set very low]

    For every 10,000 pCi/L of radon in the water, 1 pCi/L would be emitted into the air. For example, if there is 40,000 pCi/L in the water, this will contribute about 4 pCi/L to the air. ( )

    The EPA suggests radon levels of 300 pCi/L as a new safty target. Now its set at 4,000 pCi/L.

    The EPA drinking water standard for radium is 5 pCi/L.

    In Pennsylvania again BEFORE fracking the following results were observed in one study:

    “Radium-224 activities ranging from 0.4 to 265 pCi/L were measured in water from wells sampled in 1999.” ( )

  3. Jack says:

    I can’t understand why they don’t mandate that fracking companies use unique non-toxic signature compounds in their fracking fluids, which are not found in nature, to easily identify the source of contamination. It would make it so easy to prove where the contamination came from. Am i missing something here?

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Not only do they use known carcinogens like benzene, but chemicals whose nature is kept secret because ‘commercially confidential’. The sheer bastardy of capitalist exploitation never ceases to anger.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So, does ‘fracking’ improve the situation concerning groundwater contamination, or leave it unchanged? One considerably doubts so, and if that is true, your observations seem, to me, to be irrelevant.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You seem to believe in that mythical creature, ‘corporate responsibility’, a very strong oxymoron.

  7. sal esman says:

    The higherst radiation levels in drinking water in the state of Pennsylvania were in Philadelphia and had nothing to do with fracking.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Gas production frequently includes “scrubbing’ out radionuclides that co-occur in gas-bearing geologic strata.

    Getting background levels for radionuclides in well water is relevant to future fracking in the counties that are likely to be explored. The production fluids from deep wells may bring up more radionuclides that could end up in the surface storage lagoons, and possibly leak out.

    However, the USGS well water data in the link provided is for Chester County, Pa., located in southeastern Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, and outside the region of gas-bearing Marcellus shale.

    (I was personally interested in reading the Chester County fact sheet, as generations of family are from that area. As population spread out from Philadelphia, wells were dug deeper and deeper as groundwater was depleted. It is possible to speculate on why people lived into their 90s in previous centuries and people in the 20th century died somewhat younger, after wells were dug deeper.)