Researchers show fracking's impact to drinking water sources

March 30, 2016 by Rob Jordan
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff members sample a monitoring well for contaminants from hydraulic fracturing. A Stanford study in Pavillion, Wyoming, finds that practices common in the fracking industry have affected the community's drinking water.

Only one industry is allowed to inject toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water – hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Concerns about this practice have riled the U.S. political landscape and communities around the country, perhaps nowhere more so than in Pavillion, Wyoming, population 231.

A new study by Stanford scientists published in Environmental Science & Technology finds for the first time that fracking operations near Pavillion have had clear impact to underground sources of . The research paints a picture of unsafe practices including the dumping of drilling and production fluids containing diesel fuel, high chemical concentrations in unlined pits and a lack of adequate cement barriers to protect groundwater.

The well field has gone through several corporate hands since the 1960s, but various fracking operators have used acid and treatments at the same depths as water wells in the area.

"This is a wake-up call," said lead author Dominic DiGiulio, a visiting scholar at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. "It's perfectly legal to inject stimulation fluids into underground drinking water resources. This may be causing widespread impacts on drinking water resources."

"Decades of activities at Pavillion put people at risk. These are not best practices for most drillers," said co-author Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

As part of the so-called frackwater they inject into the ground, drilling companies use proprietary blends that can include potentially dangerous chemicals such as benzene and xylene. When the wastewater comes back up after use, it often includes those and a range of potentially dangerous natural chemicals.

"There are no rules that would stop a company from doing this anywhere else," said Jackson, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The study, based on publically available records and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is part of Jackson's ongoing research on shallow fracking and its impact on groundwater. He and his colleagues have done various studies across the United States and in the Pavillion Field, an area of Wyoming's Wind River Basin pocked by more than 180 oil and gas wells, some of them plugged and abandoned.

Back in 2008, the residents of Pavillion complained of a foul taste and odor in their drinking water and questioned whether it was related to physical ailments. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a preliminary report putting the tiny town at the center of a growing fracking debate.

The EPA report, which linked shallow fracking to toxic compounds in aquifers, was met with heavy criticism from the drilling industry as well as state oil and gas regulators. Three years later, having never finalized its findings, EPA turned its investigation over to Wyoming. The state released a series of reports without firm conclusions, and, as of last month, has said it has no firm plans to take further action. In the meantime, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has advised area residents to avoid bathing, cooking or drinking with water from their taps.

The new Stanford study goes a step beyond the 2011 EPA report to document not only the occurrence of fracking chemicals in underground sources of drinking water but also their impact on that water that is making it unsafe for use.

The ripple effect goes well beyond Pavillion.

"Geologic and groundwater conditions at Pavillion are not unique in the Rocky Mountain region," said DiGiulio. "This suggests there may be widespread impact to underground sources of drinking water as a result of unconventional oil and gas extraction."

To avoid what happened in Pavillion, Jackson and DiGiulio suggest further investigation and regulations to limit shallow fracking and require deeper protective casings. Wyoming does not require the cementing of surface casings, and only two U.S. states, Colorado and Texas, have special requirements for shallow hydraulic fracturing. Safeguards mean little, however, if they are not enforced – something the EPA has done a mixed job with, according to Jackson.

"The EPA has consistently walked away from investigations where people and the environment appear to have been harmed" by fracking's impact on groundwater, Jackson said.

Explore further: Does living near an oil or natural gas well affect your drinking water?

More information: Robert B. Jackson et al. The Depths of Hydraulic Fracturing and Accompanying Water Use Across the United States, Environmental Science & Technology (2015). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b01228

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Mar 30, 2016
You know, instead of looking for terroritsts trying to get at nuclear materials and hijacking planes they should look into terrorist organizations buying their way into fracking companies to dump all kinds of nasty stuff down there.
Much easier to get away with and a much higher/longer lasting 'terror effect'.
Lex Talonis
5 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
Lynch mob - hang them and burn their houses and offices down.

Anonym
3 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
Hed bust .... but aside from that, the tone of this article is a little strident, doncha think? This article deals with a special case --- "shallow" fracking --- while most is done thousands of feet below drinking-water sources and poses no risk to the water table. The story however conflates shallow and deep fracking, which is disingenuous at best. It appears the smelly water referred to in this article was as likely contaminated by the open, unlined pits used to hold fracking fluids as by the fracking itself. But, since there's no way to know, the writer is free to draw any conclusion he wishes.
antialias_physorg
4.4 / 5 (7) Mar 30, 2016
This article deals with a special case --- "shallow" fracking --- while most is done thousands of feet below drinking-water sources and poses no risk

So these 'deep fracking' sites don't use the (quote):
" dumping of drilling and production fluids containing diesel fuel, high chemical concentrations in unlined pits and a lack of adequate cement barriers to protect groundwater." ?

That would be some miraculously nice behaviour by the goddy-good deep frackers as opposed to the evil shallow frackers, n'est ce pas?
krundoloss
5 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2016
Antialias -- I often wonder that myself. Why wouldn't terrorists try to poison reservoirs or do other kinds of environmental harm. Like you say, once people lose trust in a resource like drinking water, it can have huge effects. Maybe its not their style, but if chaos and widespread problems are what they are after, seems like a likely scenario.
gkam
2 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
More reasons to get rid of fossil fuels before they get rid of us.
compose
Mar 30, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
gkam
2 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
Frack the frackers.

The legal system can do it.
Rosser
1 / 5 (3) Mar 30, 2016
There seems to be a lot of guessing and misinformation in the comments. Any petroleum engineers out there? I am. The closest to a reasoned comment that I see was penned by Anonym. As stated, the vast majority of fracking is thousands of feet below the drinking water level. Can it be cross contaminated? Sure, if the completion company fails to do its job properly. But this is an exceedingly rare occurrence. And, contrary to popular belief, drillers do not use wells as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals and radioactive materials that they need to get rid of. That thought is just stupid on the face of it. Please try to get both sides of the story on this, and anything else you'd care to pass judgement on, before you make damning decisions.
compose
Mar 30, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
qquax
5 / 5 (1) Mar 30, 2016
@Lex Talonis, if your kids were poisoned by this you may actually feel that way, rather than to snark about it.
qquax
5 / 5 (4) Mar 30, 2016
@Rosser, in all likelihood you can frack safely at depth if properly done, the problem is that without regulation and good oversight there is little to ensure that it will happen.

antigoracle
not rated yet Mar 30, 2016
You can't begin to imagine the sh!t they pump down there. But, thems the cost for cheap energy.
Caliban
5 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2016
There seems to be a lot of guessing and misinformation in the comments. Any petroleum engineers out there? I am. The closest to a reasoned comment that I see was penned by Anonym. [...] Please try to get both sides of the story on this, and anything else you'd care to pass judgement on, before you make damning decisions.


We won't even get into a pissing match with regards to your bona fides, Rosser.

But we can clearly be certain of to which side your loyalty is pledged. You basically asserted that Anon was correct, then parroted the same unsupported claims. The fact is, no depth is "safe". The fact is, waste fracking fluid IS pumped into old wells, bores, and any cavity easily accessible, without regard to virtual certainty of "unexpected" migration of those fluids into surrounding or lesser depths. These strata are not mapped with any precision, and preexisting or induced fracturing guarantees the escape of these pressurized, low-density fluids.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2016
@Rosser, sorry man, if you make holes in the ground and inject nasty chemicals and my water which was fine for a hundred years turns stinky and the EPA starts telling me not to shower with it, you

TOTALLY

SCREWED

THE

POOCH

Dumb da dumb dumb.
gkam
1 / 5 (3) Mar 31, 2016
Is rosser unaware many corporations use "deep well injection" to hide their toxic substances?

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