EPA says fracking may hurt aquifers

Dec. 9, 2011 at 6:09 a.m.

Natural gas wellheads and other production facilities are in the rural  community of Pavillion, Wyo.

Natural gas wellheads and other production facilities are in the rural community of Pavillion, Wyo.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday for the first time that fracking - a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells - may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.

The draft finding could have significant implications while states try to determine how to regulate the process. Environmentalists characterized the report as a significant development, though it met immediate criticism from the oil and gas industry and a U.S. senator.

The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.

The news comes as hydraulic fracturing has caused the oil and gas industry to explode in the Crossroads.

The Eagle Ford Shale play - a hydrocarbon-rich formation running from the Mexico border across Texas - is booming because of the paired techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The Eagle Ford Shale formation had been known about for years, but drillers could never make a well produce. Fracking and horizontal drilling now have the wells in the Eagle Ford Shale formation flowing.

However, there has been some concern over what drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale could do to the water supply. Concern about the chemicals used in the process caused the Texas Legislature to pass a bill last spring that requires companies to disclose the chemicals used when fracking wells, making Texas the first state to take such measures. The rules governing disclosure are scheduled to go into effect in July 2012.

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion - a small community in central Wyoming - where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels of hydrocarbons in their wells.

The EPA announcement could add to the controversy over fracking, which has played a large role in opening up many gas reserves, including the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.

The EPA said its announcement is the first step in a process of opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.

"EPA's highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water," said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver.

The EPA also emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area. The agency said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics.

The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used.

Advocate reporter Dianna Wray contributed to this story.



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