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Fossil Fuels usgs finds fracking chemicals in pavillion wyoming water

Published on September 28th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Busted, Part Deux! Fracking Chemicals Found in Wyoming Water Supply

September 28th, 2012 by  

With the release of a new study on water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming the U.S. Geological Survey has just put its two cents into the debate over whether or not the natural gas drilling method called fracking puts water supplies at risk. The results do not look good for the natural gas industry. The findings, which appear to confirm an earlier study of water contamination in Pavillion by the U.S. EPA, provide more hard evidence that the chemicals used in fracking are getting into drinking water supplies.

usgs finds fracking chemicals in pavillion wyoming water

Fracking, Water Contamination and More

Fracking involves pumping a chemical brine underground in order to shake natural gas loose from shale deposits. The water supply at issue in Pavilion is groundwater, or water from wells used by residents, but groundwater contamination from drilling is only one of several water issues linked to fracking.

Another issue is the potential for surface water contamination caused by fracking fluid escaping from the drilling operation, from trucks, from the large lagoons used to store spent fracking fluid, or from the illegal disposal of spent fluid.

That could affect nearby properties, including residential grounds and conservation areas as well as farmland, streams and rivers

The use of injection wells to dispose of spent fracking fluid has also given rise to a connection between earthquakes and fracking, including earthquakes that are large enough to be felt on the surface.


Fracking in Wyoming and Beyond

Fracking is not a particularly new method of drilling, but until recently it was mainly confined to underpopulated areas. Evidence of water contamination, other than anecdotal evidence, was nearly impossible to collect because the gas industry had won exemptions to standard federal regulations that would have required it to disclose the substances used in fracking fluids.

That explains why, for example, the residents of Pavillion have been reporting a suspected link between nearby fracking operations and polluted drinking water wells since the mid-1990’s with no action from federal agencies.

That has been changing under the Obama Administration, which has been steadily putting pressure on the industry to identify the chemicals in fracking brine.

Another change has come with the development of vast, newly accessible gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale formation, which cuts across high-population areas, including parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, where isolated episodes could more easily swell into the public radar.

USGS Fracking Report and Gas Exports

The USGS report comes at an especially bad time for the gas industry. New supplies in the Marcellus and elsewhere are competing with traditional gas states in the Midwest, and legislators from that region have been furiously lobbying Congress to expand the market by allowing them to increase exports overseas.

Our friends over at The Hill have been following the legislative aspect of the story closely and they report that another group of lawmakers is lobbying just as hard for more study of fracking risks before any increase in exports is allowed.

The Hill’s Zack Coleman notes that in a letter this week to the Department of Energy, the group stated its concern that more exports would not only come from conventional wells, but from increased fracking activity, “thus threatening the health of local residents and jobs.”

The legislators raise the issue that to accommodate the export market, farms and local property values would be threatened, and domestic consumers and manufacturers would pay higher prices for electricity.

Encana, the Canadian company that owns the Pavillion wells in question, pushed back hard against EPA’s findings last year, so stay tuned for its response to the USGS report.

Image: Drinking water. Some rights reserved by @bastique.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Julian Cox

    Note: When discussing Fracking and Groundwater Pollution, the natural gas industry is prone to use the ruse of separating the concepts of drilling operations from fracking operations to claim fracking is not responsible for xyz issue. It is useful therefore to group fracking and associated drilling explicitly as one concept (which of course it is). While fracking is in itself horrific, much of the most severe contamination including benzene, bromides and radioactive tracers in upper levels of groundwater (and the fastest to come out of people’s facets) comes from drilling.

  • MRUGeol

    Tina, did you even read the report or did you just quick read the abstract, look on page 28 (or 38 of the pdf) of the report in the summary “eochemical data
    presented a well-defined pattern of geochemical evolution
    based on natural rock-water and microbially mediated
    processes, strongly suggesting that the resulting water quality
    is derived from these natural processes with no effects from gas-production activities” – http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2012/5273/sir2012-5273.pdf

    This is more like

    Busted, Part Trois: Tina Casey did not read the USGS report

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  • jburt56

    You have a problem if the Ogallala aquifer is contaminated. . .

    • Bob_Wallace

      You would, but what actual data do we have?

      “Benzene is among the 20 most widely used chemicals in the United States. It is used mainly as a solvent (a substance that can dissolve or extract other substances) and as a starting material in making other chemicals.

      In the past it was also commonly used as a gasoline additive, but this use has been greatly reduced in recent decades.Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke.

      Benzene is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and laboratory animals. The link between benzene and cancer has largely focused on leukemia and cancers of other blood cells.

      The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for health and safety regulations in most workplaces, limits workplace exposure to benzene in the air to 1 ppm (part per million) during an average workday and a maximum of 5 ppm over any 15-minute period.

      When working at potentially higher exposure levels, OSHA requires employers to provide personal protective equipment such as respirators.

      The EPA limited the percentage of benzene allowed in gasoline to an average of 1% (with a maximum of 5%) as of 1990. As of 2011, this limit is further reduced to an average of 0.62% (with a maximum of 1.3%)

      .The EPA limits concentrations of benzene in drinking water to 5 ppb (parts per billion). Some states may have lower limits.

      Likewise, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set a limit of 5 ppb in bottled water.”


      A “drop” of benzene in the Ogallala is not likely to hurt us.

      Millions of gallons would likely cause some problems.

      We don’t know the scale of the problem. I tried to read through the report the claim is based on but my eyes glazed over…


      If someone has a good chemistry background perhaps they could translate. Does the report state >5 ppb? Or that trace amounts are staring to show?

  • Euripides

    Can you tell me what you mean by ‘contamination’ and WHAT checmicals are in the groundwater at unsafe levels for human health?
    There is no hard evidence. And there is no evidence of fracking chemicals in the groundwater.
    I mean, if you know more than me, who’s actually read the reports, and have an idea of what I’m looking at, then please enlighten me.
    Stop being alarmist.
    Oh, and good journalism would state that if you use a picture, a caption of what the picture is of, when it was taken, and who took it, should be provided.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The picture – it’s art.

      Are you a credible source and how would we know?

      That’s not an attack, it’s an honest question. I’m befuddled by the lack of a truly objective body who is tracking this problem, or possibly non-problem. I’d love to find a “Consumer Reports” that deals with what is know on a “here’s the facts” basis.

      There is hype on both sides of the issue. The natural gas companies refuse to state what chemicals they are using and claim to do no evil. People on the anti-fracking side seem to invent problems at times. I’d really like to know the facts.

      I see natural gas as a mixed blessing/curse.

      It does release about half as much CO2 per unit electricity genrated as does coal. And does so without the mercury and other pollutants of coal. NG plants are relatively cheap and fast to build. Utility companies are shutting down the worst coal plants (thank you, PBO and the EPA) and replacing with NG generation.

      Additionaly, NG plants are highly dispatchable (and suffer a fuel cost). If there’s wind or solar available then the NG plant will get shut down, avoiding CO2 production. Coal can’t be turned on/off quickly and what happens at times is that the coal plant keeps on burning and the wind turbines get ‘parked’.

      There’s the leaked methane problem. Possibly/probably fixable. Or at least largely fixable.

      Then there’s fracking.

      If fracking is screwing up a lot of our water then we’ve got a problem. We might need to put pressure on to stop fracking.

      If fracking is screwing up very little of our water then we might want to live with that. We can filter water and after a few years we should be able to remove those chemicals or at least dilute them below the dangerous level.

      Best if we mess up no water at all, but if the choice is between a climate ruined for hundreds of years or a small fraction of our water supply contaminated for a decade or two I think we have to vote in favor of stoping runaway climate change.

      Facts. I need me some facts….

      • Here’s a fact for you. If I intentionally wanted to poison ground water I would pump toxic chemicals into the ground at high pressures.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Well, here’s a fact for you. If you pumped in a thimbfull you’d fail.
          We do not know how much is getting into the ground water.

          Estimates put the volume of the Ogallala aquifer at over one million billion gallons of water. It would take some considerate amount of stuff pumped in before we hit a dangerous level.

          I am not purposing we damage our water supply, I’m just trying to understand whether this is a real problem or something more like the tinfoil hat panic we’ve seen over floride and smart meters.

      • Julian Cox

        Bob, just a tip.

        Read up on this: http://cleanwater.org/page/fracking-laws-and-loopholes

        Fracking is specifically exempt from water pollution regulation – i.e. environmental madness.

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