EPA: Chemicals Found in Wyo. Drinking Water Might Be From Fracking

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ProPublica.org

EPA: Chemicals Found in Wyo. Drinking Water Might Be From Fracking

by
Abrahm Lustgarten

Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. The drilling company Encana is supplying Meeks with drinking water. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Federal environment officials investigating drinking water contamination [1]
near the ranching town of Pavillion, Wyo., have found that at least
three water wells contain a chemical used in the natural gas drilling
process of hydraulic fracturing. Scientists also found traces of other
contaminants, including oil, gas or metals, in 11 of 39 wells tested
there since March.

The study, which is being conducted under the
Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, is the first time
the EPA has undertaken its own water analysis in response to complaints
of contamination in drilling areas, and it could be pivotal in the national debate [2] over the role of natural gas in America's energy policy.

Abundant gas reserves are being aggressively developed in 31 states, including New York [3] and Pennsylvania [4]. Congress is mulling a bill [5]
that aims to protect those water resources from hydraulic fracturing,
the process in which fluids and sand are injected under high pressure
to break up rock and release gas. But the industry says environmental regulation is unnecessary [6] because it is impossible for fracturing fluids to reach underground water supplies and no such case has ever been proven.

Scientists
in Wyoming will continue testing this fall to determine the level of
chemicals in the water and exactly where they came from. If they find
that the contamination did result from drilling, the placid plains
arching up to the Wind River Range would become the first site where
fracturing fluids have been scientifically linked to groundwater
contamination.

In interviews with ProPublica and at a public
meeting this month in Pavillion's community hall officials spoke
cautiously about their preliminary findings. They were careful to say
they're investigating a broad array of sources for the contamination,
including agricultural activity. They said the contaminant causing the
most concern - a compound called 2-butoxyethanol, known as 2-BE  - can
be found in some common household cleaners, not just in fracturing
fluids.  

But those same EPA officials also said they had found
no pesticides - a signature of agricultural contamination - and no
indication that any industry or activity besides drilling could be to
blame. Other than farming, there is no industry in the immediate area.

EPA
officials told residents that some of the substances found in their
water may have been poured down a sink drain. But according to EPA
investigation documents, most of the water wells were flushed three
times before they were tested in order to rid them of anything that
wasn't flowing through the aquifer itself. That means the contaminants
found in Pavillion would have had to work their way from a sink not
only into the well but deep into the aquifer at significant
concentrations in order to be detected. An independent drinking water
expert with decades of experience in central Wyoming, Doyle Ward,
dismissed such an explanations as "less than a one in a million" chance.

Some of the EPA's most cautious scientists are beginning to agree.

"It
starts to finger point stronger and stronger to the source being
somehow related to the gas development, including, but not necessarily
conclusively, hydraulic fracturing itself," said Nathan Wiser, an EPA
scientist and hydraulic fracturing expert who oversees enforcement for
the underground injection control program under the Safe Drinking Water
Act in the Rocky Mountain region. The investigation "could certainly
have a focusing effect on a lot of folks in the Pavillion area as a
nexus between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination."

Though the drilling companies have repeatedly
compensated residents with the worst cases of contamination, they have
not acknowledged any fault in causing the pollution. An Encana
spokesman, Doug Hock, told ProPublica the company wants "to better
understand the science and the source of the compounds" found in the
water near Pavillion before he would speculate on whether the company
was responsible. 

Precise details about the nature and cause of
the contamination, as well as the extent of the plume running in the
aquifer beneath this region 150 miles east of Jackson Hole, have been
difficult for scientists to collect. That's in part because the
identity of the chemicals used by the gas industry for drilling and
fracturing are protected as trade secrets [1],
and because the EPA, based on an exemption passed under the 2005 Energy
Policy Act, does not have authority to investigate the fracturing
process under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Using the Superfund program
gave the agency extra authority to investigate the Pavillion reports,
including the right to subpoena the secret information if it needs to.
It also unlocked funding to pay for the research.

About 65 people,
many in jeans, boots and 10-gallon hats, filled Pavillion's community
hall on Aug. 11 to hear the EPA's findings. They were told that a range
of contaminants, including arsenic, copper, vanadium and methane gas
were found in the water. Many of these substances are found in various
fluids used at drilling sites.

Of particular concern were
compounds called adamantanes, a natural hydrocarbon found in gas that
can be used to fingerprint its origin, and 2-BE, listed as a common
fracturing fluid in the EPA's 2004 research report on hydraulic
fracturing. That compound, which EPA scientists in Wyoming said they
identified with 97 percent certainty, was suspected by some
environmental groups in a 2004 drilling-related contamination case in
Colorado, also involving Encana. 

EPA investigators explained
that because they had no idea what to test for, they were relegated to
an exhaustive process of scanning water samples for spikes in
unidentified compounds and then running those compounds like
fingerprints through a criminal database for matches against a vast
library of unregulated and understudied substances. That is how they
found the adamantanes and 2-BE.

An Encana representative told
the crowd the company was as concerned as they were about the
contamination and pledged to help the EPA in its investigation.

Some people seemed confounded by what they were hearing.

"How
in god's name can the oil industry dump sh*t in our drinking water and
not tell us what it is?" shouted Alan Hofer, who lives near the center
of the sites being investigated by the EPA.

"If they'd tell us
what they were using then you could go out and test for things and it
would make it a lot easier right?" asked Jim Van Dorn, who represents
Wyoming Rural Water, a non-profit that advises utilities and private
well owners on water management.

"Exactly," said Luke Chavez, the EPA's chief Superfund investigator on the project. "That's our idea too."

Now
that the EPA has found a chemical used in fracturing fluids in
Pavillion's drinking water, Chavez said the next step in the research
is to ask Encana for a list of the chemicals it uses and then do more
sampling using that list. (An Encana spokesman told ProPublica the
company will supply any information that the EPA requires.) The EPA is
also working with area health departments, a toxicologist and a
representative from the Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry to assess health risks, he said. 

Depending
on what they find, the investigation in Wyoming could have broad
implications. Before hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe
Drinking Water Act in 2005, the EPA assessed the process and concluded
it did not pose a threat to drinking water. That study, however, did
not involve field research or water testing and has been criticized as
incomplete. This spring, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson called some of
the contamination reports "startling" and told members of Congress [8] that it is time to take another look. The Pavillion investigation, according to Chavez, is just that.

"If
there is a problem, maybe we don't have the tools, or the laws, to deal
with it," Chavez said. "That's one of the things that could come out of
this process."

 

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