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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.”