Energy. Environment. Economy.

EPA Blames Fracking for Wyoming Groundwater Contamination

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A drill rig looms above a cow pasture in north central Pennsylvania.

For the first time, federal environmental regulators have made a direct link between the controversial drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.

The EPA released on Thursday its draft investigation results on water pollution in the Wyoming town of Pavilion.

This federal finding linking “fracking” and groundwater pollution could have widespread repercussions. Several states, including New York and Pennsylvania, are in the midst of creating new gas-drilling regulations. Up until this report, industry representatives, along with the head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, have said no persuasive evidence exists linking fracking directly to problems with water quality. DEP Secretary Michael Krancer recently testified in Congress that the idea that fracking pollutes groundwater is “bogus.”

Residents of Pavilion, Wy., began complaining about drinking water that smelled like chemicals back in 2008. Intensive drilling for natural gas in the area began in the late 1990′s and continued until 2006. The area now has 169 natural gas wells.

The draft report says investigators have found compounds in Pavilion’s groundwater associated with fracking. The EPA found high concentrations of benzene, xylene, gasoline and diesel fuel in shallow groundwater supplies that they linked to wastewater pits. But the report also found a number of fracking chemicals in much deeper fresh water wells.

“Alternative explanations were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.”

Hydraulic fracturing is a method to extract oil and gas from underground deposits. It uses a mixture of sand, water and chemicals to fracture shale rock and release the gas. The EPA draft report found chloride, isopropanol, diethylene glycol, triethylene glycol, and tert-butyl alcohol in the deeper test wells.  The report indicates the difficulty tracking the chemicals because the gas industry is not required to reveal all chemical elements.

“Material Safety Data Sheets do not indicate that fuel or tert-butyl hydroperoxide were used in the Pavillion gas field. However, Material Safety Data Sheets do not contain proprietary information and the chemical ingredients of many additives. The source of tert-butyl alcohol remains unresolved. However, tert-butyl alcohol is not expected to occur naturally in ground water.”

The report also links high levels of methane to gas drilling.

“Although some natural migration of gas would be expected above a gas field such as Pavillion, data suggest that enhanced migration of gas has occurred within ground water at depths used for domestic water supply and to domestic wells. Further investigation would be needed to determine the extent of gas migration and the fate and transport processes influencing migration to domestic wells.”

The draft report highlights the need for baseline water testing before drilling begins near drinking water sources.

“Finally, this investigation supports recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Energy Panel (DOE 2011a, b) on the need for collection of baseline data, greater transparency on chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids, and greater emphasis on well construction and integrity requirements and testing. As stated by the panel, implementation of these recommendations would decrease the likelihood of impact to ground water and increase public confidence in the technology.”

Pennsylvania is the only state that does not require baseline testing of private well water.

The Calgary, Alberta-based Encana, which owns the Pavillion gas field, told the AP that it has concerns about the study.

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

The compounds EPA said could be associated with fracking, he said, could have had other origins not related to gas development.

“Those could just have likely been brought about by contamination in their sampling process or construction of their well,” Hock said.

The AP also quoted Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe as saying the study was “not based on sound science but rather on political science.”

“Its findings are premature, 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,” Inhofe said in a statement.

The EPA details their research into other possible causes for the contamination, but says the evidence points to hydraulic fracturing chemicals used in gas drilling. A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection says they’re still reviewing the report, and will issue a public statement. In the meantime, DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh says fracking has not polluted water in Pennsylvania. “It is important to note that there are no documented cases of hydraulic fracturing impacting a water supply in Pennsylvania,” says Gresh.

The EPA’s report will now undergo a peer review process.


  • Iris Marie Bloom

    This report is incredibly important. It shows that the industry has lied for years. It also shows that regulators — including both John Hanger and Michael Krancer, the former and current PA DEP Secretaries who have enormous responsibility for public health — have been giving false reassurances about fracking for years. No one should be drinking water with benzene, 2-butoxyethanol, diesel, or any of these substances which have been showing up in drinking water not just in Wyoming but in Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Laura Amos’ cancer; the deaths of Jose Lara and Chris Mobaldi; the leukemia spike in Flower Mound, Texas, and more are all attributed to gas drilling. This is such a serious public health issue that it argues for an immediate moratorium on high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — with or without horizontal drilling, because vertical drilling into tight formations has clearly caused terrible water contamination and illness. And, bad as the water pollution is, the air contamination is even worse — we can’t afford to be breathing acetone, benzene, toluene, napthalene, and we can’t afford the greenhouse gas emissions either. We must protect our people. 

    • Mike Knapp

      This was not high volume slick water fracturing.  This was shallow, conventional drilling and fracing, immediately adjacent and even directly into the aquifer.  Hanger and Krancer are not liars.  In PA, there is over a mile of solid rock between the Marcellus and potable water sources.  This is like comparing apples and horse droppings. 

      • Anonymous

        Iris Bloom is right to state those facts.People on the streets are saying,  DEP = Dept of Political payoffs. Governor Rendell said at a drilling meeting in Texas years ago that he was the Gas industries biggest cheerleader. Dep Sec Hanger would not drink the water from Dimmock Pa in the film “Gasland”. Gov “Corporate ” promotes a coal barron to head the DEP. Sets up a rigged committee just like VP Dick Cheney to strip environmental laws with the Haliburton Loopholes, and to destroy the Publics Health, Safety, and Welfare.Judges are sealing court cases and transparency is nonexistant. What scraps of information the general public gets from the media is regional and never the health effects of the people injured is shown. This is a National Health  and Political Disaster! And Mike, there is NO container in the earth anywhere that can guarantee complete containment. Fissures are openings that pass gasses and liquids.  Example, Radon gas enters cellars all through Pa.It originates in the marcellus shale.  How did it get into those cellars? And as far as horse droppings, well I’ll let you be the expert at that.  

      • LISA Z.

        Mike if you did more research into the process you would realize that it does not matter how much solid rock is between the Marcellus and the potable water sources because no one knows how the fracking cracks the rock between the shale layers and the aquifers.  Geologists are just now beginning to realize the consequences to the “solid” rock between the drillling and the aquifers and since no one can actually look down thru the rock to measure the vertical cracks that fracking causes until there is aquifer contamination data collection has been slow. Research also shows that many of the water contaminations come from cracks in the concrete casings at aquifer level that leak chemicals into the aquifers and from lining leaks in pits that leak chemicals into the ground and surface water. 

  • Gerry Kaufman

    The whole fracking movement in this country and particularly in Pennsylvania is a perfect example of the 1% exploiting the 99% by buying political influence through campaign contributions. In Pennsylvania those charged with regulating the gas drillers are  their major  supporters and appologists.
    Gerry Kaufman

    • P_cox2001

      You’re right about the political “boys” working their campaign coffers…Gov. Cuomo received money from these gas industries as campaign contributions and now he’s pushing the DEC to allow fracking to continue, while “claiming” to listen to citizens on the issues in his Public Comments, scheduled to end January 11, 2012. You just know they’re going to push it through — no matter what! (We’re trying though…)

      Incidentally, isn’t it funny how the DEC at a public hearing in Henrietta, NY is considering permits for a 100,000 gallons per day withdrawal of water in Upstate New York granted to include gas companies that comes just at the same time as the Cuomo push for allowing fracking to continue?  It’s obvious that gas companies are now looking into the Utica Shale (under most of NY state and up to Canada), after raping the Marcellus Shale (Southern Tier, Tioga, PA, etc.) It doesn’t surprise me one bit that this “water removal” action coincides with the fracking legislation coming up.

      The DEC said yesterday that we, the public, can comment on their website, but after the hearing, I approached the keynote speaker as he was leaving outside…”This is going to happen no matter what we do, isn’t it?”  He looked a bit sheepish and couldn’t answer me. 

      They try to isolate the two issues, but “water removal” and “hydrofracking” are synonymous because allowing these companies to extract that much water will allow them to continue with the hydrofracking process.

      We need to stop this!

    • Fred

      Are you frigging nuts?

  • Cckinoue

    Clearly there has to be mandatory groundwater sampling prior to fracking.  While it appears unlikely that properly installed fracking wells will cause groundwater contamination in the shallow domestic and municipal wells, the only way we will know is if area wells are tested before the fracking begins. Additionally, soil and surface water should be tested before drilling starts to determine the effects of the activity around the drilling site. I would hope that if contamination appeared after fracking that the responsible companies would pay for the  clean up and provide a new water supply.

    Its a messy game, we all depend on fossil fuels for energy, yet we fear those same chemicals for the adverse health effects they have on us and most life.  Honestly, I think its been a pretty fair trade off, all the creature comforts and effortless transportation for the CO2, smog and respiratory ailments. I know that sounds callous and there are many who are fighting for every breath and their lives as a result of the crap that’s been released into the environment. Like it or not, we are inextricably tied into fossil fuel power at this time. We have to make sure the extractive industries are being as careful as necessary to protect the water supplies, air quality and environment. If they can’t provide the assurances that their activities are safe, then they shouldn’t be engaged in that activity.  The only way we will ever know is if there is sufficient sampling evidence.

    • P_cox2001

      Good luck with getting those same companies to pay for anything related to the activities that hurt the environment and landowners properties.  Look at what’s happening in PA.

  • Steve white

    Well,well,well! Now there’s a documented case! Not sure what took so long…..I hope the EPA follows through with this study. It still baffles me that not all the chemicals are disclosed in this process. . How could any overseeing agency regulate or do a good study without knowing the details.

  • Anonymous

    Key term is regulators have *made* a direct link. 

  • BradyDale

    Yes, the EPA released preliminary facts about this 3 years ago and it looked pretty damning then. How else would all those diesel byproducts show up underground? 

    • Lisa

      Between 2005 and 2009 industry used 32 million gallons of unpermitted diesel in their fracking fluid. 

    • Rightofcenter

      Diesel by-products come from underground naturally in any area that has underground crude oil.  That is the most ignorant remark I have ever heard.

      • Joel Nelson

        You are wrong, Right. Things like tert butyl alcohol are manufactured at refineries. They are man made chemicals and are not found naturally in oil and gas reservoirs.

  • cschilling

    Charles                                                                                                                                             I’m sure a lot of your readers saw the family from Wy on the 630pm news last night. They  have to use a fan to shower so the fumes don’t buid up and cause an explosion and of course they can’t use the water for drinking  or cooking. It never ceases to amaze me how these companies will rape the land and disregard the effect on the environment for mere profit. 

    • Fred

      why don’t you just make up some more bs?  why not say the water comes out green and purple with yellow pokadots and tastes like baked potatos?  Are you friggin nuts or what?

  • Lisa

    I think that this could be the smoking gun that environmental
    groups were looking for.  Proof that
    this water contamination is occurring and not just from the drilling, but from
    the hydraulic fracking as well.  The
    federal government should be regulating these activities first of all, and
    industry knows this. Which is why they push for state regulations   States don’t have the political power or the
    resources to regulate these companies well enough.

    This is just one more example of how industry sways
    government.  Have you seen all these
    natural gas commercials on TV lately? 
    What a crock, beautiful green pastures and everyone looking as though life
    is beautiful. 

    I think that the commercials should have real actors,
    yes the people who live near these natural gas wells, and get their
    opinion.  I bet the commercial would
    look a lot different. Bottom line, EPA has linked fracking to water
    contamination.   Way to go Lisa.

  • Geneskl Edl

    What the frack!?

    Why don’t they realize that they could just MOVE AWAY FROM THE GENERAL POPULATION!?

  • Anthony

    Years from now, after groundwater in many of our nations’ aquifers have been severely contaminated by exotic oil drilling processes like fracking and study after study reveals it to be harmful, people will wonder how we ever thought this was safe.
    But this will be the past, and all the while thousands of people will have lost loved ones or had their health and quality of life adversely affected while the perpetrators of these crimes made billions of dollars.
    By the time fracking is ended they will be long gone from their positions at these drilling companies, they will never face a judge or a jury or a courtroom, never have to see the faces of the people whose lived they destroyed and it might make a nice plot to a movie with John Travolta. But there will never be justice.
    We need to stop fracking now to stop this all from happening. The damage might already be done and might be seeping toward our residential wells, rivers, lakes, and streams this very moment.
    It is sickening that they are fighting to prolong this travesty and accept that people can just reject the evidence, nomatter how credible, solely on the basis of their pre-existing political beliefs or position to gain or lose profit. This study is the tip of the iceberg that will sink the U.S.S. Fracking, we must hope the water isn’t too deadly to enter when it finally goes under.

    • Fred

      my God you must be a miserable person.

  • John Texas

    How do you get diesel from franking? That impossible.

  • Freakonomics101

    They must have had some real rocket scientists figure that one out! LMAO HMmmm, Let’s see, drill 1000′s of holes deep into the ground, violently fracture the hydrocarbon rich rock layer under the aquifer with high explosives for a mile in each direction then the water becomes racing fuel as hydrocarbons float on water… Even my 5yr old figured that out! I guess that’s why the scientists had to finally admit it to avoid looking profoundly retarded!

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