A new study out of Stanford University offers residents of Pavillion, Wyoming a little more clarity on an issue that has been plaguing them for nearly a decade: is hydraulic fracturing to blame for years of contamination in their drinking water?
The town initially made headlines in 2008, when residents began complaining of strange odors and tastes in their drinking water. In 2011 the EPA got involved, first issuing a draft report that connected fracking to the contamination. The agency later walked back on the report, however, and refused to issue a finalized version and instead handing the matter over to state officials. Years later, the state has yet to move forward with the report.
So researchers at Stanford decided to take measures into their own hands, looking at publicly available records and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to see if they could pinpoint the source of Pavillion’s water contamination. Their conclusion, which was published earlier this week in Environmental Science and Technology, was that fracking operations near Pavillion have had a clear influence on the quality of groundwater.
“This is a wake-up call,” lead author Dominic DiGiulio, a visiting scholar at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, said in a press statement. “It’s perfectly legal to inject stimulation fluids into underground drinking water resources. This may be causing widespread impacts on drinking water resources.”
Hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — is an increasingly popular fossil-fuel extraction technique where operations use high-pressure injections to crack open underground rock formations containing oil or gas. Frackwater, or the water that is injected into the ground during the extraction process, can contain a slew of chemicals including benzene and xylene. When the water comes back up as a byproduct of the process, it can also contain natural chemicals. Operations like the one outside of Pavillion often dispose of wastewater and production fluid in unlined pits — which can expose groundwater to chemicals — or inject it into underground wells.
Using data from two EPA-monitored wells as well as state reviews of natural gas wells, drinking water wells, and drilling pits, the study found that chemicals associated with fracking had migrated from underground storage wells and unlined storage pits into aquifers that supply Pavillion residents with their drinking water, though the study did not go so far as to find fracking-associated chemicals in Pavillion’s drinking water itself. This result is consistent with the EPA’s 2011 draft report, which found high levels of fracking chemicals and cancer-causing toxins in monitoring wells.
DiGiulio, who used to work for the EPA, told Buzzfeed News that the Stanford study was the one he “would have done for the agency if [he] was still there.” He also said that the decision to step away from the 2011 report came from EPA leadership, not individual scientists.
He also said that the study could have implications beyond Wyoming, and warned that states like California, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota -- all of which have relatively shallow fracking operations -- could see their water sources similarly contaminated.
"Geologic and groundwater conditions at Pavillion are not unique in the Rocky Mountain region," DiGiulio said in a press statement. "This suggests there may be widespread impact to underground sources of drinking water as a result of unconventional oil and gas extraction."
Oil and gas companies, however, have rejected the notion that their activities have led to drinking water contamination in Pavillion. Doug Hock of Encana Oil & Gas Inc., which had multiple shallow fracking operations around Pavillion starting in 2004, told Buzzfeed News that "Encana, together with the State of Wyoming, as well as EPA have conducted numerous rounds of testing and study in Pavillion" and have found "no evidence that the water quality in domestic wells in the Pavillion Field has changed as a result of oil and gas operations; no oil and gas constituents were found to exceed drinking water standards in any samples taken."
The Stanford study comes just months after the EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) voiced concerns over the agency's long-awaited draft assessment of the potential risks to drinking water associated with fracking. The SAB found that the draft assessment "needs to do a better job of recognizing the importance of local impacts" and suggested that the final assessment include high-profile cases of possible water contamination, including Dimock, Pennsylvania, Parker County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyoming.