4 States Confirm Water Pollution from Fracking
5 January 2014
Kevin Begos, AP
PITTSBURGH (AP) — In at least four states that have nurtured the
nation's energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about
well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution
was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that
casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely
The Associated Press requested data on drilling-related complaints
in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas and found major
differences in how the states report such problems. Texas provided
the most detail, while the other states provided only general
outlines. And while the confirmed problems represent only a tiny
portion of the thousands of oil and gas wells drilled each year in
the U.S., the lack of detail in some state reports could help fuel
public confusion and mistrust.
The AP found that Pennsylvania received 398 complaints in 2013
alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise
affected private water wells, compared with 499 in 2012. The
Pennsylvania complaints can include allegations of short-term
diminished water flow, as well as pollution from stray gas or
other substances. More than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed
over the past five years.
Just hearing the total number of complaints shocked Heather
McMicken, an eastern Pennsylvania homeowner who complained about
water-well contamination that state officials eventually
"Wow, I'm very surprised," said McMicken, recalling that she and
her husband never knew how many other people made similar
complaints, since the main source of information "was just through
The McMickens were one of three families that eventually reached a
$1.6 million settlement with a drilling company. Heather McMicken
said the state should be forthcoming with details.
Over the past 10 years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has led
to a boom in oil and natural gas production around the nation. It
has reduced imports and led to hundreds of billions of dollars in
revenue for companies and landowners, but also created pollution
Extracting fuel from shale formations requires pumping hundreds of
thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground
to break apart rock and free the gas. Some of that water, along
with large quantities of existing underground water, returns to
the surface, and it can contain high levels of salt, drilling
chemicals, heavy metals and naturally occurring low-level
But some conventional oil and gas wells are still drilled, so the
complaints about water contamination can come from them, too.
Experts say the most common type of pollution involves methane,
not chemicals from the drilling process.
Some people who rely on well water near drilling operations have
complained about pollution, but there's been considerable
confusion over how widespread such problems are. For example,
starting in 2011, the Pennsylvania
Department of Environmental Protection aggressively fought efforts
by the AP and other news organizations to obtain information about
complaints related to drilling. The department has argued in court
filings that it does not count how many contamination
"determination letters" it issues or track where they are kept in
Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the
leading industry group in Pennsylvania, said in a statement that
"transparency and making data available to the public is critical
to getting this historic opportunity right and maintaining the
When the state Environmental Department determines natural gas
development has caused problems, Forde said, "our member companies
work collaboratively with the homeowner and regulators to find a
Among the findings in the AP's review:
— Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination
cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were
five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine
months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010. The
Environmental Department said more complete data may be available
in several months.
— Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of
water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of
contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed
contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013,
with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under
investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark
Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of
contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.
— West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling
contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four
cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to
take corrective action, officials said.
— A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62
of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas
activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad
Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators
haven't confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well
contamination in the past 10 years, she said.
In Pennsylvania, the number of confirmed instances of water
pollution in the eastern part of the state "dropped quite
substantially" in 2013, compared with previous years, Department
of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz wrote in
an email. Two instances of drilling affecting water wells were
confirmed there last year, she said, and a final decision hasn't
been made in three other cases. But she couldn't say how many of
the other statewide complaints have been resolved or were found to
be from natural causes.
Releasing comprehensive information about gas drilling problems is
important because the debate is no longer about just science but
trust, said Irina Feygina, a social psychologist who studies
environmental policy issues. Losing public trust is "a surefire
way to harm" the reputation of any business, Feygina said.
Experts and regulators agree that investigating complaints of
water-well contamination is particularly difficult, in part
because some regions also have natural methane gas pollution or
other problems unrelated to drilling. A 2011 Penn State study
found that about 40% of water wells tested prior to gas drilling
failed at least one federal drinking water standard. Pennsylvania
is one of only a few states that don't have private water-well
But other experts say people who are trying to understand the
benefits and harms from the drilling boom need comprehensive
details about complaints, even if some cases are from natural
In Pennsylvania, the raw number of complaints "doesn't tell you
anything," said Rob Jackson, a Duke University scientist who has
studied gas drilling and water contamination issues. Jackson said
he doesn't think providing more details is asking for too much.
"Right or wrong, many people in the public feel like DEP is
stonewalling some of these investigations," Jackson said of the
situation in Pennsylvania.
In contrast with the limited information provided by Pennsylvania,
Texas officials supplied a detailed 94-page spreadsheet almost
immediately, listing all types of oil and gas related complaints
over much of the past two years. The Texas data include the date
of the complaint, the landowner, the drilling company and a brief
summary of the alleged problems. Many complaints involve other
issues, such as odors or abandoned equipment.
Scott Anderson, an expert on oil and gas drilling with the
Environmental Defense Fund, a national nonprofit based in Austin,
notes that Texas regulators started keeping more data on
complaints in the 1980s. New legislation in 2011 and 2013 led to
more detailed reports and provided funds for a new information
technology system, he said.
Anderson agreed that a lack of transparency fuels mistrust.
"If the industry has nothing to hide, then they should be willing
to let the facts speaks for themselves," he said. "The same goes
for regulatory agencies."