Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Fracking’s threat to drinking water is getting little EPA scrutiny, studies find

Source: GAO
A diagram in the GAO report details how fracking wells can contaminate groundwater.

Two new reports on fracking’s potential threat to American aquifers suggest that drinking-water contamination is significantly more likely than energy producers, and regulators, have been willing to acknowledge.

Neither has gained much attention in the national press — and none locally that I can detect.

A two-year audit by the Government Accountability Office, made public two weeks ago, concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing a poor job of protecting drinking-water supplies from the many fracking-related activities that fall outside the so-called “Halliburton loophole.”

Since 2006, most injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids done to directly produce oil and natural gas has been exempt from EPA oversight. But other phases of the fracking operations — injection of wastes or returned water for long-term storage — are supposed to be regulated by EPA or state agencies to which it delegates the responsibility.

There are now some 172,000 such wells across the U.S., and though at least some of these are known to have contaminated drinking water sources, the GAO found that no long-term monitoring is being done, and short-term oversight is deficient in many respects as well.

The second report was delivered earlier this week to the national conference of the American Chemical Society by Stanford scientist Rob Jackson, of whom I have written before.

Fracking in aquifers

Drawing on research not yet published, Jackson and Stanford colleague Dominic DiGiulio — formerly employed by EPA to investigate fracking-related problems — told the chemists’ meeting in San Francisco that gas production often takes place at the same depth as drinking-water aquifers, despite industry assertions to the contrary.

They cannot point to instances where actual contamination has occurred, according to an account of their presentation by Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times, in part because EPA and state regulators haven’t really looked at groundwater impacts.

Perhaps the best coverage I found concerning the GAO report was at ProPublica, which has devoted steady emphasis to demonstrating patterns of weakness, laxity and simple neglect in U.S. fracking regulation. Placing the key findings of GAO’s two-year audit in context, ProPublica observed that

Concerns have mounted recently about potential water contamination from injections wells. California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review of more than 100 others, out of fears that fracking fluids and other toxic waste are reaching drinking water aquifers there. Earthquakes from Ohio to Oklahoma to Texas have also been blamed on injection wells governed by the EPA’s program.

The GAO’s findings echo those in a 2012 ProPublica investigation which found that the nation’s injection wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, likely leading to pollution of underground water supplies. ProPublica’s investigation found that the EPA did not know exactly how many wells existed in the United States or what volume of waste was being injected into them, and that it did not possess complete records required to be collected under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

From the report itself, mildly titled “DRINKING WATER: EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement”:

Every day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into underground formations to enhance oil and gas production or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources.

These fluids consist largely of saltwater and may contain pollutants such as chlorides, hydrocarbons, and naturally occurring radioactive materials. Using injection wells that rely on gravity or pressure, the fluids are injected deep underground into porous rock formations, such as sandstone, that are typically below aquifers that can, or do, supply drinking water.

Because a significant percentage of the population gets its drinking water from underground aquifers, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.

Water monitoring is rare

GAO investigators examined monitoring of these so-called “class II wells” in eight states, six of which managed their own program (California, Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas) and two of which left the whole matter to EPA regional offices (Kentucky and Pennsylvania).

Although all eight require predrilling review of the plans for these wells, most states do not routinely monitor nearby groundwater resources as the well is being drilled or after it is sealed.

The report refers repeatedly to “a few” known instances of drinking water contamination, without specifics, but also notes that

However, unless it is part of an investigation of a citizen or other complaint, EPA and states generally do not directly monitor groundwater to detect contamination from injection wells as part of their class II programs.

When it first developed the UIC program and its regulations, EPA considered, but did not include, monitoring of groundwater for contamination as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of the program  and its safeguards.

Furthermore, the Safe Drinking Water Act does not specifically require groundwater quality monitoring for class II wells. Moreover, EPA guidance notes that, while evidence of the presence or absence of groundwater contamination is important, it cannot serve as the only measure of program effectiveness, and the absence of evidence of contamination does not necessarily prove that contamination has not occurred.

Rules date from 1980s

In a section devoted to emerging “new risks”— induced seismicity, or earthquakes, as well as overpressurization of wells and rising use of diesel fuels — the auditors note that GAO has not updated is regulations for class II wells since the 1980s, long before the fracking boom, and has no coherent plan for doing so now.

Meanwhile, the inspection programs are hindered by inadequate staffing and funding (four of the eight states had fewer than 10 inspectors), as well as inadequate data collection on chemicals and methods being used at the wells.

Remember, now, these are the wells that EPA has the clear authority to monitor closely. Even less is known about exempt wells drilled to produce the gas and oil.

Those were the subject of the Jackson-DiGiulio presentation to the American Chemical Society. A few excerpts from the L.A. Times account:

DiGiulio and Jackson plotted the depths of fracked wells, as well as domestic drinking water wells in the Pavillion [Wyoming] area. They found that companies used acid stimulation and hydraulic fracturing at depths of the deepest water wells near the Pavillion gas field, at 700 to 750 feet.

“It’s true that fracking often occurs miles below the surface,” said Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford. “People don’t realize, though, that it’s sometimes happening less than a thousand feet underground in sources of drinking water.”

The EPA launched three investigations over the last six years into possible drinking water contamination by oil and gas activity in Dimock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo. After initially finding evidence of contamination at the three sites, the EPA shelved the investigations amid allegations by environmentalists and local residents that the regulator succumbed to political pressure.

In June 2013, the EPA turned over the [Pavillion] study to Wyoming regulators, whose work is being funded by EnCana, the company accused of polluting the water in Pavillion.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/14/2014 - 10:23 am.

    Fox and chickens

    It’s unlikely that research into potential water pollution from fracking that’s conducted by the oil company doing the fracking will produce results suggesting even faintly that the oil company’s activities might be related to any resulting water pollution.

    Lack of staff and funding is an effective tactic that fits right in with the Republican bias against over-regulation, and my hunch is that several members of Congress get significant amounts of campaign money from “people” whose names are those of oil and other energy companies actively involved in fracking. Those members of Congress can thus make public pronouncements about how much they value clean drinking water while simultaneously helping to make sure that clean drinking water doesn’t get in the way of energy company profits.

    Besides, those energy company CEOs are living far, far away from the places where fracking is being conducted, so their families are safely insulated from any negative side effects that fracking might produce.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/14/2014 - 03:41 pm.

    By the Time We Realize that Injecting Fracking Waste

    Into deep underground wells is going to contaminate every aquifer where it’s being done, and those for many hundreds of square miles around,…

    and realize that the outrageous cost of trying to clean up water from those polluted aquifers enough to make that water safe to drink,…

    we’re going to discover how thoroughly we screwed ourselves by ignoring those who were trying to warn us about what was happening right under our noses and our feet.

    Meanwhile, some of the areas that are rapidly becoming MOST desperate for water because of climate change are soon going to discover that what few aquifers they had, the ones they were so worried they might be pumping dry, are too polluted to use at all.

    Perhaps it’s time we stopped allowing the dinosaur energy companies to lull us into complacency as they destroy our world and our atmosphere,…

    stopped allowing them to make development and deployment of solar, wind, tidal, and other freely-available energy sources,…

    initiated a Manhattan Project-type R&D undertaking to develop needed electrical storage capacity technologies,

    and left our use of dinosaur energy sources completely behind.

  3. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 08/14/2014 - 05:08 pm.

    It’s the wild west in fracking land

    A new report notes that fracking companies have injected, and apparently still are injecting, diesel fuel into the ground. It’s the wild west out there in fracking land, a ‘limited government’ paradise of radical under-regulation, ground water contamination, and awe inspiring levels of corporate recklessness and disregard for public health.

    “The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released information in July indicating that the practice of fracking damaged public water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007. Diesel fuels were used to frack wells in Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Montana without required Safe Drinking Water Act permits according to the report.

    “EPA and the states have an obligation to protect the public from the potential health hazards of fracking by enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said report author Mary Greene, Managing Attorney for EIP and a former EPA enforcement attorney.

    EIP researchers also discovered numerous fracking fluids with high diesel content for sale online, including over a dozen products sold by Halliburton and advertised as additives, friction reducers, and emulsifiers. According to EPA’s February 2014 guidance, injection of any of these products requires a Safe Drinking Water Act permit.

    “If ‘diesel fuel use has already been effectively phased out of hydraulic fracturing operations,’ as an industry representative stated as recently as February 2014, then why are these products still for sale?” states the report.”

  4. Submitted by jason myron on 08/14/2014 - 06:23 pm.

    C’mon guys…

    you’re being way too hard on fracking and its potential dangers. After listening to this expert, I’ve seen the light…

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 08/15/2014 - 09:25 am.

    Danger Danger

    We all know that scrutiny could endanger profits, not to mention the conquering of new domains. As long as the important people can still afford bottled water, it’s all good.

  6. Submitted by Diane hadd on 08/20/2014 - 05:34 pm.

    C’on guys …EPA has their hands so deep in big gas pockets, they’ve got one agenda , kill off big gasses only competitor! Has nothing to do with global warming.

Leave a Reply