In 2006, a Dallas-based company riding a nationwide natural gas boom drilled and hydraulically fractured a gas well in a sandstone and shale formation in Jackson County, W. Va. Just after EXCO Resources fractured the well, area residents said that two nearby water wells became polluted.
“When the water actually went bad was after they fractured,” says Paul Strohl, 69, a retired firefighter who lives in Jackson County. “Even the consistency changed,” said his wife Janet, 67. “It was slimy.”
After the problems surfaced, Paul Strohl says, Tyler Mountain Water, a company based in Poca, W. Va., began delivering water to the affected residents.
“After they fracked, this water truck started showing up delivering water. I don’t think it takes more than a third-grade education to figure out what that means.”
The landowners whose water wells were involved in the incident have declined to comment, saying they signed confidentiality agreements with EXCO. The Strohls’ account bears striking similarities to a report issued almost 25 years ago by the Environmental Protection Agency, which concluded that hydraulic fracturing (colloquially known as “fracking”) could – and did – contaminate underground drinking water sources.
That all-but-forgotten report from December 1987, uncovered by Environmental Working Group and Earthjustice, contradicts the drilling industry’s insistence that there has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.
Used in more than 90 percent of natural gas and oil wells, fracking involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure in order to fracture underground rock formations and unlock trapped gas and oil.
EPA’s long-ignored 1987 report found that fracturing fluid from a shale gas well more than 4,000 feet deep had contaminated well water just across the road from the Strohls’ home, that the contamination was “illustrative” of the types of pollution associated with natural gas and oil drilling, and that EPA’s investigation had been hampered by confidentiality agreements between industry and affected landowners.
Since then, the industry has hydraulically fractured hundreds of thousands of wells and is continuing a historic push into natural gas-bearing
shale formations, once considered inaccessible, that lie beneath populated areas in a number of states, including West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana and Arkansas. To access these formations, drillers often use a relatively new combination of horizontal
drilling and higher-volume fracturing. As drilling activity has intensified, reports of pollution have sparked a growing national debate over the actual or potential environmental risks, including contamination of groundwater, the source of drinking water for more than 100 million Americans, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
As the West Virginia case and others like it indicate, the risk of groundwater contamination is greatly increased because decades of oil and gas exploration have left many regions of the country riddled with thousands of abandoned and often poorly sealed wells. Government and industry studies show that fracking fluids from new wells can potentially infiltrate these older bores and rise back up to the level of drinking water aquifers closer to the surface.
In the debate over these risks, EPA and Congress have never cited the agency’s own 1987 report and have largely exempted fracturing from regulation.
“During the fracturing process,” EPA investigators wrote in the 1987 report, which focused on the handling of natural gas, oil and geothermal wastes generally, “fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well. When this happens, the water well can be permanently damaged and a new well must be drilled or an alternative source of drinking water found.”
In an introduction to the chapter on contamination cases, including the case in Jackson County, the EPA noted that “within each [geographic] zone, the report presents one or more categories of damages that EPA has selected as fairly illustrative of practices and conditions within that zone.”
Industry representatives reviewed EPA’s report and appeared to reach different conclusions about the case.
In the EPA docket center in Washington, EWG discovered comments submitted by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the natural gas and oil industry’s major trade association.
Although API was generally critical of EPA’s investigation, calling it “inaccurate” and “careless,”
API did not specifically dispute EPA’s conclusions about the West Virginia case in several written comments. Indeed, the industry’s comments indicate that the association agreed with EPA that the case involved contamination of groundwater as a result of fracturing.
“One case,” the API wrote, referring to the West Virginia contamination case, “resulted in a workover operation fracturing into groundwater
as a result of equipment failure or accident. As described in the detail write-up this is not a normal result of fracturing as it ruins the productive capability of the wells.” Another document attached to API’s comment noted that in the West Virginia case “the damage here results from an accident or malfunction of the fracturing process….The process requires the fractures to be created to be limited to the producing formation. If they are not as is the apparent case here oil and gas are lost from the reservoir and are unrecoverable.”
A group of state oil and natural gas associations took a different approach in comments submitted to EPA in 1988. “EPA is incorrect in its statement that the fracturing of a well can result in contamination of nearby water wells….” the associations wrote. “Such a statement is completely without support in the study. In fact, we know of no case where this has occurred given proper casing. The zones which are fractured are several thousand feet below the deepest fresh water zones making contamination of the fresh water zones extremely unlikely.”
Environmental Working Group recently conducted its own year-long investigation and concluded that a variety of evidence indicates that the West Virginia case was indeed an example of hydraulic fracturing pollution of groundwater, though it could not rule out that another stage of the drilling process could have caused the problem.
A former EPA official who worked on the 1987 report and asked not to be named said that the agency was aware of other cases of groundwater pollution involving hydraulic fracturing but did not include them in the report because the details were sealed under confidential legal settlements reached between affected property owners and energy companies. The 1987 document noted that such settlements often presented hurdles for the EPA’s investigation.
“Private citizens rarely bring cases to court because court cases are expensive to conduct,” the EPA reported, “and most of these cases are
settled out of court…. In addition to concealing the nature and size of any settlement entered into between the parties, impoundment curtails access to scientific and administrative documentation of the incident.”
The former official said the EPA identified other cases of groundwater contamination caused by fracturing but excluded them from the report because they involved pollution by migrating natural gas or oil, not by the chemical-laced fluids injected in the fracking process itself. Contamination by leaking natural gas and oil was considered outside the scope of the report, which focused only on the management of wastes from the natural gas, oil and geothermal industries. The report also noted that because EPA had only three months to collect cases from across the nation, “there was limited time available for damage case review.”
The former EPA official explained that EPA had to complete the study quickly because the agency had missed a Congressionally mandated deadline and was working under a court-ordered timetable.
Both the 2006 incidents in West Virginia and the 1987 EPA study, which involved dozens of documented incidents of apparent contamination by fracking, drilling wastewater stored in pits and other drilling techniques, raise new questions about the agency’s commitment to protecting the public as it pursues its current two-year study of hydraulic fracturing’s risks.
Inexplicably, the EPA failed to mention its own finding when it produced a second report in 2004, a document that an internal whistleblower sharply criticized for its lack of scientific rigor and for relying on a review panel stacked with current or former industry employees.
The 2004 analysis concluded that hydraulic fracturing in coal bed methane natural gas wells, a relatively small subset of natural gas and oil wells, posed no risks to underground water supplies. The study set the stage for a Congressional vote in 2005 that legally exempted fracking for all types of natural gas and oil wells from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a law specifically designed to prevent contaminants injected underground from migrating through abandoned natural gas and oil wells.
In its 2004 report, the EPA announced that it was limiting its review to coal bed methane wells in large part because such wells “tend to be shallower and closer to [underground sources of drinking water] than conventional oil and gas production wells” and “EPA has not heard concerns from citizens regarding any other type of hydraulic fracturing.”
It made that decision despite the findings of its own 1987 report on the West Virginia case, which found that hydraulic fracturing for natural
gas in a shale deposit more than 4,000 feet deep had polluted a water well only 400 feet from the surface.
EWG’s investigation also turned up recent industry and government reports that sharpen concerns about fracturing and may help explain the West Virginia case featured in the EPA’s report. These documents show that fractures from one well can spread unpredictably and are known to have caused fracturing fluid to migrate into other nearby natural gas and oil wells, sometimes known as “offset wells.”
“Fractures are usually enormous features,” wrote engineer and drilling industry consultant M.C. Vincent in a paper that he presented at a hydraulic fracturing conference held near Houston in January 2009. “In many reservoirs, fractures are mapped to extend beyond 1,000 feet
(half-length) from the wellbore. In some reservoirs, half-lengths exceeding 2,200 feet have been confirmed as treatments have broken into offset wellbores…”
State regulators in Illinois and Texas, as well as Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, have also documented contamination problems caused when oil and gas waste fluids injected underground for disposal migrated up nearby older wells and broke out near the surface, where groundwater is found, a phenomenon sometimes called “saltwater breakout.”
One case in Texas involved fluid that traveled half a mile underground from an injection well and then migrated up through an old, improperly plugged well.
There were four abandoned natural gas wells within about 1,700 feet of the gas well and water well involved in the West Virginia case documented by the EPA in 1987.
Currently, both EPA and the Department of Energy are reviewing the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing. These multiple pieces of independent evidence underscore how essential it is that both agencies tackle these issues in a far more thorough way than EPA did in its cursory and deeply flawed 2004 review.
Download the report in the attachments below.