EPA Review Clears Fracking

Literature shows little impact on water resources

Morgantown Dominion Post
7 June 2015
By David Beard

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft assessment of fracking’s potential impacts on drinking water encouraged industry supporters, but didn’t offer any real surprises.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of new information in the report,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVU’s Water Research Institute.

The assessment, done at the request of Congress, showed that fracking — hydraulic fracturing — has not led to widespread impacts on drinking water resources. There are potential vulnerabilities related to fracking practices that could affect drinking water. (Those vulnerabilities will be described a little later in this story.)

Ziemkiewicz called it a “nice literature review” that reported things those who follow fracking industry literature already knew. The $33 million study — counting $4 million to be spent this year — lacked independent data analysis and offered no recommended practices to protect groundwater.

The Dominion Post contacted Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley for their thoughts on the assessment.

Only Capito responded.

“EPA’s report is very encouraging for the continued development of natural gas production in West Virginia,” she said in an email. “In recent years, we have seen what advances in energy technology can do to broaden energy production and benefit the economy.”

In West Virginia, she said, Marcellus shale gas “is creating new opportunities for hardworking families, which our state desperately needs during a time when our coal jobs are being lost. I have always said that an energy economy is a jobs economy, and I will continue to support policies that harness the potential of West Virginia’s vast energy resources.”

Kelley Gillenwater, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said they haven’t fully studied the EPA assessment.

“We still need to conduct a more in-depth review of the report. However, from what we’ve gleaned so far, the report’s findings are consistent with what we’ve been seeing ourselves — that there is no evidence of significant impact to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing operations.”

The EPA said the review is not intended to declare fracking safe. And at the same time that the EPA released its report, the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health released an analysis of southwestern Pennsylvania birth records showing that pregnant women living close to a high density of fracked gas wells were more likely to have babies with lower birth-weights than women living farther from such wells.

The report said the finding doesn’t prove that the proximity to the wells caused the lower birth-weights, “but it is a concerning association that warrants further investigation.”

WVU School of Public Health professor Mike McCawley, who has conducted fracking studies for the state, said he reviewed the report. “I think there’s a chance it’s going to be universal wherever there’s a lot of heavy industry.”

The problem may be tied to the ultrafine particles in diesel exhaust fumes, he said. “It’s fairly toxic stuff.” The findings are “not at all out of line” with studies done in Europe.

Diesel particle emissions aren’t regulated by the EPA, McCawley said, and regulations are needed. “I’ve been pestering every source I can get to” on the need for regulations, he said.

Drinking water vulnerabilities

The EPA assessment looked at water use in five states of fracking: Water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and disposal.

In noted that from 2000 to 2013, about 9.4 million people nationwide lived within one mile of a fracked well. About 6,800 drinking water sources sat within the same radius, serving more than 8.6 million people.

Water acquisition. The EPA said water withdrawal can affect availability of water supplies. Ground water withdrawals exceeding recharge rates can drain aquifers. Surface water withdrawals can affect water quality by reducing capacity to dilute contaminants.

However, EPA found no cases where fracking alone caused a well or stream to run dry.

Chemical mixing. Frack fluid is generally 90 to 95 percent water, with sand or other “proppants” (to keep shale cracks open for gas flow) and various chemical additives mixed in. The chief danger lies in spills that can flow or seep into the water supply, and the hazard will vary depending on the nature of the additives.

Spill frequency ranged from one for every 100 wells in Colorado to as high as 12.2 spills per well in Pennsylvania. Of 151 spills examined, 13 reached surface water and none reached ground water, though this may be because ground seepage could take years to reach the aquifer.

Well injection. The chief dangers here are liquids or gases escaping from the well directly into a water source, or liquids or gases seeping through rock into the water.

The key to prevention, EPA said, is proper casing and cementing of the well bore. In Bainbridge, Ohio, an improperly cased well allowed a blowout alongside a well that sent gas into nearby aquifers. Underground seepage is less likely since the shale zones are widely separated from the aquifers, especially in the Marcellus, where the rock is about a mile beneath the water supply.

In some rare instances, generally the western U.S., EPA said, fracking zones and water supplies lie in the same formation and more caution is needed.

Gas and fluid migration and threats to water are also possible from “frack hits,” where fractures reach older or inactive wells that lack proper casing, EPA said.

Flowback and produced water. After the well is fracked, before and during the movement of gas, a portion of the several million gallons of frack water returns to the surface. Along with the fracking chemicals, flowback contains subsurface metals and radioactive material from the shale. Dangers can stem from surface spills at the well pads.

EPA’s review of the literature showed that 8 percent of the 225 produced water spills reached a water supply. In Bradford County, Pa., a spill sent 10,000 gallons of produced water into a trout stream.

Wastewater disposal. Water produced from the wells is generally recycled in the Marcellus area, the EPA said. Dangers can arise if, instead of being recycled, the brine water is improperly treated and released into rivers or streams where it raises levels of total dissolved solids.

Dangers can also arise from dumping untreated water into streams, via vehicle accidents or on purpose, or from using treated water for land applications such as dust mitigation on roads. “Studies of road spreading of conventional oil and gas brines have found elevated levels of metals in soils and chloride in ground water.”