EPA Links Fracking, Fouled Water

Gas drilling method cited as likely cause for groundwater problems in Wyoming

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
9 December 2011
By Mead Gruver, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday for the first time that fracking -- a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells -- may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.

The draft finding could have significant implications while states try to determine how to regulate the process. Environmentalists characterized the report as a significant development, though it met immediate criticism from the oil and gas industry and a U.S. senator.

The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels of hydrocarbons in their wells.

The EPA announcement could add to the controversy over fracking, which has played a large role in opening up many gas reserves, including the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States in recent years.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials were reviewing the draft report Thursday and plan to "submit comment for the public record when our review is complete," spokeswoman Katy Gresh said in a statement. "It is important to note that there are no documented cases of hydraulic fracturing impacting a water supply in Pennsylvania."

And Kathryn Klaber, president and chief executive of the Marcellus Shale Coalition based in Canonsburg, Pa., an organization of energy industry firms seeking to develop Western Pennsylvania regional resources, said: "Environmental protection is critical to our industry. And we are confident that as the critical peer-review process moves forward, scientists and engineers on the ground in Wyoming will be able to secure more facts. However, it is entirely too early in this process, given the lack of peer-reviewed data, to arrive at any kind of absolute conclusions."

The industry has contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.

The EPA said its announcement is the first step in opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.

"EPA's highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water," said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver. "We look forward to having these findings in the draft report informed by a transparent and public review process."

The EPA also emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion, Wyo., area.

The agency said the fracking in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere.

The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking-water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote, and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used.

Environmentalists welcomed the EPA report, calling it a turning point in the fracking debate.

"This is an important first indication there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells. It's, I think, a clarion call to industry to make sure they take a great deal of care in their drilling practices," said Steve Jones with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Pavillion resident John Fenton, chairman of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens group, applauded the EPA for listening to the homeowners with contaminated water.

The Pavillion gas field is owned by the Canadian firm Encana, based in Calgary, Alberta. An announced $45 million sale to Midland, Texas-based Legacy Reserves fell through last month, amid what Encana said were Legacy's concerns about the EPA inquiry.

Encana spokesman Doug Hock said there was much to question about the draft study.

The compounds that the EPA said could be associated with fracking, he said, could have had other origins unrelated to gas development. "Those could just have likely been brought about by contamination in their sampling process or construction of their well," he said.

The low levels of hydrocarbons found in local water wells likewise haven't been linked to gas development, and substances such as methane itself are naturally occurring in the area.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the EPA study was "not based on sound science, but rather on political science."

"Its findings are premature," he said, "given that the agency has not gone through the necessary peer-review process, and there are still serious outstanding questions regarding EPA's data and methodology."

Post-Gazette staff writer Liz Navratil contributed.