Science, Tech & Environment

Fracking often gets blamed for water problems, but it's not a clear cut case

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Credit: Reid Frazier

A well near the Woodlands drilled by XTO went into an abandoned coal mine in June, sending polluted mine water into a stream and impacting groundwater nearby.

A good number of people in Pennsylvania no longer have drinkable well water.

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Among them is John Fair, who lives north of Pittsburgh in Butler County. He has to get his drinking water through a “water drive” organized by neighbors in his community, called the Woodlands.

Some Woodlands residents say they’ve had problems with their well water in the past. Sometimes it smelled bad or became dirty after rainstorms. But they say one particular thing made it worse: hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a controversial technique for harvesting natural gas.

Energy companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from rock formations like the Marcellus Shale, which sits under much of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The process creates a by-product called brine that, in some cases, spills into streams and contaminates the groundwater. John Fair and other Woodlands residents think that's what ruined their groundwater, and they're suing the drilling company, Rex Energy, that dug in their area.

But though some attribute the bad water quality to the dramatic increase in fracking across the state, scientists say the reasons for contamination are more complex. There's no consensus and a shortage of concrete evidence about fracking's effects.

Sometimes it's clear that fracking has polluted nearby wells. Gas activities damaged groundwater in more than 160 cases across the state, according to records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection obtained by the Times-Tribune of Scranton.

But these incidents represent a minority of cases. Pennsylvania has more than 8,000 Marcellus Shale gas wells — and the energy industry points out that the state has steadily improved its construction standards for drilling.

John Stolz, a microbiologist at Duquesne University who studies water contamination, says it's not the brine from gas drilling or chemicals used in fracking that are polluting water. Instead, wells are being contaminated by drainage from coal mines. But he also thinks the combination of old mines and gas drilling might be making matters worse. A drilling rig north of Pittsburgh recently punched through an abandoned mine, diverting mine drainage into a nearby stream.

“If no one had ever drilled a well in Pennsylvania, no one had ever mined a mine in Pennsylvania and started drilling, this would be a lot easier,” Stolz says. “But we have close to a million wells that [were] drilled prior to all this activity. That’s a lot of holes in the ground.”

From the interviews and tests he’s done, Stolz thinks water quality has gotten worse since gas drilling began. “A good number of people no longer have potable water. It seems to coincide with when the drilling commenced and went full bore, so to speak,” Stolz says.

But he can't be sure, and that's in large part because of the lack of hard numbers to measure the impact of shale gas drilling on groundwater. Sue Brantley, a geochemist at Penn State, is trying to change that.

She's been putting together groundwater tests from across the Marcellus region. Her project, called the Shale Network, is funded by the National Science Foundation and has more than one million of these data points so far — but she wants more. “The data that we’re really interested in right now is data that was collected before drilling by gas companies,” Brantley says.

Before they drill a well, gas companies typically test nearby groundwater, which can help shield them from contamination claims. But the results are locked away — like a patient’s medical records, they’re the private property of the homeowners whose lands are tested.

There are other legal hurdles, too. In cases of alleged groundwater contamination, landowners often sue a drilling company. In many instances, a company will settle the case if the landowners agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement. “Then the data doesn’t come out,” Brantley explains, “and that’s really a big loss.”

Brantley might have found a workaround. Gas companies send their results to the DEP, and she's working with the DEP to remove identifying information — like names and addresses — from the tests so she can use them in her database. And, slowly, a picture is starting to emerge.

“In our database, we have not found a lot of incidents of contamination due to the shale gas industry,” Brantley says. “There are some incidents, for sure, but we haven’t found a lot of them.”

Another problem for scientists is nature itself. Fred Baldassare, a former DEP geologist, studies underground methane migration. In a study he did with help from gas companies, he found that gas that looked like it was from the Marcellus Shale was actually embedded in rock formations closer to the surface. He thinks this has tricked other researchers into thinking gas found in shallow parts of the ground was the result of drilling or fracking in the Marcellus.

The confusion has hit John Fair as well. Rex Energy initially provided Fair and his neighbors with drinking water, but that ended in 2012 when the state's DEP said gas activities weren't the cause of the water problems. The department said the water had high levels of iron and manganese before drilling began, and the EPA agreed.

The confusing nature of studying the underground doesn’t obscure Baldassare’s overall assessment: there should be a way to do fracking without contaminating groundwater, and that the industry’s practices now are better and safer than they were five years ago.

But exactly how safe is it now? To find that out, scientists say more study is needed.

This story was reported by Reid Frazier for the Public Radio program, the Allegheny Front.

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