by Charlotte Ambrozek, Intern
Recently, Ms. Carla Greathouse, the lead author of a 1987 EPA study on well-water contamination by hydraulic fracturing, brought her report to the attention of the New York Times. The resultant August 4, 2011 article, “A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May Be More,” which also relied on other research, brings into question the statement which gas and oil industry officials have been repeating for years: hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has never contaminated underground drinking water. Drilling experts and even most critics of fracking agree that drinking water contamination by natural gas or chemicals as a result of drilling is highly improbable.
Ms. Greathouse’s report documented contamination of a well in Jackson County, West Virginia by the hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company. Although fracking wells are thousands of feet deeper than water wells, nearby abandoned drilling wells and other underground disturbances can serve as conduits for gas and fracking chemicals, allowing contaminants to reach aquifers and wells. In responding to the questions about the study, the American Petroleum Institute said that the important factor in the incident was that the driller and the regulator were unaware of the nearby well, and emphasized that modern techniques are much safer than those at the time of the report.
Now investigators are starting to question whether fracking’s record is as clean as industry officials have claimed. Previous cases of contamination have been settled between landowners and energy companies, and the settlement records are sealed. Those legal boundaries prevent researchers from accessing information without a subpoena. Ms. Greathouse has said that in researching the 1987 report, she found “dozens” of cases that seemed to involve contaminated water but were sealed. And the industry working group overseeing the report pressured to exclude all cases because the contamination was outside the scope of the study, or the reports were insufficiently documented.