The “foaming” drinking water wells of a few rural Pennsylvania homes have been infiltrated by chemicals commonly used in fracking operations, according to new peer-reviewed research.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the research showed three homes in Bradford County with water wells containing multiple compounds similar to the mix used by drilling companies. The amount of those compounds were small, however, and did not pose a health risk, the authors said.
Still, the scientists say their findings pose a direct refutation to industry claims that fracking poses no risk to drinking water systems.
“This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances [into drinking water]” Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors, said in comments to the Associated Press.
One of the households’ water supply contained 2-Butoxyethanol (2BE), a commonly used drilling chemical that is known to cause adrenal tumors in animals (it’s unknown if it causes cancer in humans). In that case, the water well was “foaming,” the study says.
How did this happen? According to the study, it was likely the result of poor practices when constructing nearby gas wells for fracking. Constructed in 2009, those gas wells lacked protective casing of steel and cement when they were drilled below approximately 1,000 feet, the study said.
The alleged result was that “natural gas and other contaminants migrated laterally through kilometers of rock at shallow to intermediate depths, impacting an aquifer used as a potable water source.” During the process of fracking, companies drill a well underground, then blast a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals into it to crack underground shale rock.
Though the chemicals discovered are commonly used in fracking, it is unclear whether those specific chemicals are actually used at the drilling sites near the three homes. That’s because the drilling companies would not provide scientists with access to their specific fracking chemicals. Still, the researchers said, shale activity is “the most probable source.”
The oil and gas industry is pushing back against the study. In a response written this week by Katie Brown of the industry group Energy in Depth, she said the study had “major research gaps,” particularly with its discovery of 2BE. That chemical is found in many other products, she said, “including things as common as Windex and cosmetic products.”
“2-BE can be an indicator of a lot of things, actually,” Brown writes. “At no point do the researchers consider that the ‘very low concentrations of 2-BE’ could be from any one of these multiple, common and commercial sources.”
She also notes that the researchers themselves admitted they could not say with 100 percent confidence that fracking itself caused the chemicals’ presence — just that it was the “most probable” cause.
“It is not possible to prove unambiguously that the [chemicals] were derived from shale gas-related activities,” the study reads.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Butler County residents have had concerns about nearby drilling and their drinking water. As noted by the New York Times, three Butler County homeowners sued drilling company Chesapeake Energy Corporation in 2011 over reportedly contaminated drinking well water.
It’s also not the first time research has been published linking well water contamination to oil and gas operations — specifically, to a poorly-constructed well. Last year, another Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study showed that faulty casing and cementing in gas wells had contaminated drinking water in Texas and Pennsylvania.