Gas patch scientists explain how hydraulic fracturing can permanently contaminate public water supplies

Accounts from two experts show there are plenty of opportunities for toxic chemicals to enter drinking water supplies

As gas industry leaders prepare to discuss hydraulic fracturing at a congressional field meeting in California and at a Representatives’ briefing in DC, it will be interesting to hear what is said about the possibility of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

As recently as a week ago one contamination expert went on the record explaining exactly how the hydraulic fracturing process could contaminate water supplies.  The expert is Dr. Conrad ‘Dan’ Volz, former director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, who has testified on hydraulic fracturing before Congress and appeared as an expert as part of water contamination investigations on ABC news.

Volz spoke with Checks and Balances Project director Andrew Schenkel last week at a public hearing on fracking in Pennsylvania.

“[Wells] are going to leak and they are going to leak when the cement shrinks and when the cement shrinks it pulls away from the geological layer that it is sealed from and then it serves as a conduit as straight into ground water aquifers,” Volz said. When asked if the chemicals could travel miles upward towards aquifers that lie well above the bottom of hydraulically fracked wells, Volz replied, “of course” (see video below).

Volz’s comments reveal how fracking, like all industrial processes, is an imperfect process. While many in the industry, like Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy and T.Boone Pickens have repeatedly said that water contamination from fracking simply doesn’t happen, Volz’s remarks point out that not only has contamination occured, but that there is plenty of potential for contamination because of the very nature of what is involved with fracking. The imperfect integrity of the concrete casings that frack wells are lined with is one obvious part of the fracking process that could lead to contamination. There are also complicated pressure dynamics to deal with at the extreme subterranean depths that fracking wells are drilled into.

These complicated processes don’t even take into account the transporting of chemical-laced fracking fluids above ground and the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater that result from a produced well. The diagram below shows several different points of the fracking process where water contamination could occur.

How Natural Gas Drilling Contaminates Drinking Water Sources

During a visit to Colorado in early 2011, Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist who studies drilling at the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute at the University of Wyoming, explained to the Checks and Balances Project that the fracking process is most vulnerable to accidental water contamination at the surface. Like Volz, Thyne did agree that there’s certainly possibility of aquifer contamination based on flaws in the concrete casings of fracking wells as well as the other uncertainties that lie underground. But it is above ground that Thyne is most concerned about.

“You are handling millions of gallons of fluid at the surface. It is easy to spill. It happens all the time. Valves jam up, pipes break, this is not without hazard,” Thyne said.

Thyne is well known for his West Divide Creek Study in Colorado, which is widely considered one of the first studies that conclusively linked fracking chemicals to water contamination in Garfield County, Colorado. When talking about the possibility of handling chemicals without causing any contamination, Thyne pointed out that even the most careful handlers of high amounts of chemicals make mistakes. He points to the United States military, which he says conducts the largest scale industrial processes in the world.

“It has an incredibly good safety record, but still things break, things go wrong, somebody doesn’t do a careful enough inspection, sometimes it’s also an act of nature. It is impossible to assure one hundred percent safety in any of these processes.”

Both Volz and Thyne’s comments and research directly refute much of the rhetoric of the oil and gas industry, and even some regulators, who claim with certainty that the hydraulic fracturing process does not contaminate water supplies. This raises many questions, one of which is what happens once contamination occurs. When asked if contamination to something like aquifers could be completely undone, Volz said, “No, you cannot ‘uncontaminate’ it. Not in the way that we think you can uncontaminate it. If it is a confined aquifer there is no ‘uncontaminating’ it.”

The scientists’ comments suggest that there is plenty to be concerned about when it comes to the large-scale hydraulic fracturing taking place in the states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. In all the fracking states there are different regulations, different ways of dealing with fracking fluids and fracking wastewater. And in all of these states, according to the words of these scientists, there is plenty of potential for water contamination from fracking both above and below the ground.

Shut out and bought out

Pennsylvania citizens are unable to be heard during a public gas advisory board meeting, while those on the board get cozy in the Governor’s back pocket.

A week after toxic fluids from a hydraulic fracturing gas well spilled into waterways and onto farmlands in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, the state’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission met in Harrisburg. The hearing seemed to frustrate citizens more than it provided them an opportunity to voice their concerns.

Before the meeting began more than a hundred landowners from across the state expressed their frustration with the Commission.  One man, carrying a giant rubber stamp and using a bullhorn seemed particularly fed up. “What’s going on in the room behind us is Governor Corbett’s bought and paid for Marcellus Shale Commission. This is the group of people that will rubber stamp all the policies that Governor Corbett wants to enact,” said Nathan Sooy of Clean Water Action Pennsylvania.

This message was a constant theme from the frustrated attendees, many of whom drove several hours to be heard at the public hearing. The morning’s analysis of the role the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission plays in Pennsylvania politics didn’t help matters either.

Of the thirty Commission members, more than a quarter of them have donated to Governor Tom Corbett’s campaign. In 2010, Corbett received $790,950 from eight of the corporations represented on the Commission and each reported between five and 174 violations that year. Chief Oil and Gas, responsible for 174 violations, donated $100,000 to Corbett’s campaign. The largest donation, $411,000, was made by East Resources, with 74 violations in 2010. Clean Water Action has the complete list.

Company 2010 Violations Corbett Conation
Atlas/Chevron

16

$54,500

Chesapeake

132

$11,000

Chief Oil and Gas

174

$100,000

CNX/Consol Energy

5

$56,750

East Resources

74

$411,000

EQT

15

$56,900

Range Resources

32

$80,000

XTO Energy/Exxon Mobile

66

$20,000

Source: Clean Water Action

With the donations report out just a week after the Bradford County spill, the frustrated crowd was eager to be heard at the commission meeting. Unfortunately, the room the 30-member commission held its hearing in was too small to accommodate many of the attendees and was closed off by police officers before the meeting and immediately after the hearing began because of fire code restrictions. When the landowners asked one police officer why a bigger room wasn’t provided for such a high profile meeting, an officer revealed that his staff had alerted the Department of Environmental Quality and the Lieutenant Governor’s office that they should have had a larger room well before the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission meeting. Members from the crowd also said they had personally made calls to the Department of Environmental Protection days ahead of the meeting.

After being shut out of attending the public hearing in person, the landowners headed up stairs at the Rachel Carson Office Building to watch a video cast of the public hearing in an overflow room. Sensing a growing level of frustration in the building, the Commission decided to move as quickly as possible to the public comment section part of the hearing. Yet, the frustration level of the landowners only grew as the first several names called spoke with high praise for both the commission and fracking in Pennsylvania, just days after the spill in Bradford County. According to several in attendance, the order that the speakers were called in did not match the order in which people signed up to speak.  “I signed on at number five. We were directed up here on the second floor where we were told to sign in. I was number five, no other sheet had signatures on it,” said Jet Miskis who traveled several hours to be at the meeting. Dr. Conrad Volz, of the University of Pittsburgh verified this. “Certainly none of these gentleman that were testifying on this list was on the list that I signed.”

As the meeting continued the Commission did begin to call the names of individuals with concerns about fracking in their back yards and near their water supplies. Outside of the overflow room upstairs Chad Sailor, the Communications Director for the Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor’s office, addressed the concerns surrounding both the small venue for this hearing and the order of speakers. Lt. Governor Cawley chairs the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

“It was recommended that this be the space. It was recommended; we took a look at it and we decided that it was adequate space for what we needed.” Sailor said this after being asked if alternative venues could have been arranged. Sailor replied defensively saying, “what do you mean do you want a laundry list of all rooms available?” Sailor was then asked about the disputed speaking order. He first said that the list was determined by a first come first serve basis. It wasn’t until a woman corrected Sailor saying that, “what they did was they read the list that they had down stairs which were the supporters of the gas industry that they allowed in and the protesters that were outside protesting had to sign this sheet here which is why we were given second dibbs.” When Sailor sarcastically replied, “yes, everything is a big conspiracy,” the woman told the communications director that, “I didn’t say that was a conspiracy. It was the absolute truth, I was here, I signed it. I am speaking from fact.”

The Commission did end up listening to comments from all people who signed up on the various lists around the Rachel Connors Office Building. The comments expressed concerns ranging from aquifer and surface water contamination to concerns about toxic emissions released into the air. But almost all of those worried about fracking at the meeting expressed strong feelings of frustration relating to literally being shut out of the dialogue on Wednesday as well as being bought out by industry interests who control both the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission and the governor’s office in Pennsylvania.