Government scientists have found that private water walls in Pavillion, Wyo. are polluted with toxic chemicals used in the controversial gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — and residents have been told not to drink from them.
The findings offer the latest evidence that the fast-spreading gas-extraction method could be endangering public health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found methane from natural gas in seven of 19 wells that were tested in January of this year. Eleven had 2-butoexythanol phosphate, a common solvent in fracking fluids that experts say can cause kidney failure, toxicity to the spleen, liver cancer and fertility problems.
They also found traces of benzene, a cancer-causer, and other chemicals that come from crude in 17 of the wells, with "high levels" detected in groundwater that is connected to the drinking water aquifer.
At a public meeting Tuesday night, attended by around 100 residents, well owners were told by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to use alternative sources of water for drinking and cooking.
Apparently, it wasn't news to many in attendance.
"For a lot of us it just confirmed what we already knew," said John Fenton of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, an organization formed to combat gas contamination.
Most important was the discovery that the methane detected in seven of eight water wells is coming from the natural gas reservoir and not bacterial action, Fenton told SolveClimate News.
"It shows there's communication between the natural gas production zone and the drinking water zones," he said.
A spokesman for Encana Corp., the primary gas driller in the area, said the methane is "likely naturally occurring."
"If it were coming from our production wells, much higher levels of methane would be seen," Doug Hock told SolveClimate News.
Second Round of Results
The results from the tiny ranching town could be crucial in the national debate over the safety of fracking, currently exempt from federal regulation.
The process injects millions of gallons of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals at high pressure into horizontal wells to force open dense and deep shale rock and release natural gas.
This is the second time in a year that EPA has tested water near gas wells that have been fracked in the central Wyoming community.
The first samples were taken last March and May, after Pavillion residents complained of foul smelling water and an increase in heath problems, including nausea, vision problems and fatigue, as well as rare cancers, seizures and liver disease.
The results showed that 11 of 39 wells were contaminated; three were filled with fracking-related 2-butoxyethanol phosphate. The EPA said further study was needed.
The town has 80 domestic wells and eight groundwater wells.
The latest report, issued late Tuesday night, said it has not reached conclusions as to the source of the contamination.
Richard Mylott, a public affairs specialist for EPA in the region, said its "investigation is ongoing."
"We will continue to collect and analyze groundwater samples to see what they tell us about potential sources," Mylott told SolveClimate News.
Hock said his company inherited the problem from a previous driller.
"The contamination referenced is from historical pits, which we inherited from a previous operator. Five years ago we identified these and began work under the state's Voluntary Remediation Program," he said.
But local residents in the town of roughly 160 say their health problems grew worse after Encana bought the Pavillion/Muddy Ridge gas field about five years ago and began drilling more wells.
Fenton said he now suffers chronic headaches and fatigue; his mother-in-law has lost her ability to taste and smell, and his wife is suffering similar symptoms, he said.
A survey last month found that 15 of the 16 respondents are suffering health effects consistent with exposure to fracking chemicals.
EPA 'Steps Up' Amid Fracking Boom
EPA said it is working with Encana to secure other sources of water to residents.
Fenton said "EPA has really stepped up to the plate on this," and he believes Encana is working to address the problem as well.
"I really hope so," he said. "I don't always trust the industry ... I'm not saying that Encana has bad people ... You lose some individuality and humanity when you're talking about a big corporation like that."
Drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking fluids due to an exemption under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act.
In 2004, EPA reported that the process "poses little or no threat" to underground sources of drinking and "does not justify additional study at this time," a finding supported by the oil and gas industry.
But with a shale gas boom underway nationwide and water safety in doubt, federal regulation may be needed, some observers say.
Already, shale drilling has increased from 1 percent of U.S. gas production in 2000 to 10 percent today, according to a report by consulting firm PFC Energy. A recent MIT study estimates there's enough natural gas to supply the entire nation for 90 years.
Much of that would have to be fracked out of shale deposits located in over 20 states.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, are now demanding that oil and gas companies disclose the types of fluids being injected into wells.
EPA is holding a public hearing process as part of a $1.9 million peer-review study it will conduct in 2011 to investigate the impact of fracking on water quality.