Study exposes fracking’s poisonous effects

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Fracking - a natural gas extraction process - has always been a source of controversy for environmental activists. Now, concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale have skyrocketed, in light of a recent scientific study, which concluded that chemicals used in fracking can seep into and poison drinking water far more quickly and easily than previously thought.

The shale is a unit of rock near Marcellus, New York that extends through part of the Appalachian Mountains. It contains largely in-demand natural gas reserves and is considered to be one of the most desirable targets for energy development among those who support the troubling fracking process.

Some 5,000+ wells were drilled in the Marcellus between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to ProPublica. Fracking operators typically inject around four million gallons of fluid into the ground to drill and frack each well.

In the new study, published three weeks ago in the monthly environmental research journal Ground Water, scientists suggested that, although certain layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other hazardous chemicals, those chemicals would reach the surface within merely a few years, and then taint any nearby water.

Scientists arrived at such a conclusion based on computer modeling, which analyzed the natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus Shale.

Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist and author of the study, said, "Simply put, the rock layers [in the Marcellus Shale] are not impermeable. The shale is being fracked into a very high permeability. Fluids could move from almost any injection process."

Two anti-fracking environmental groups - Catskill Mountainkeeper, and the Park Foundation, both located in upstate New York, funded the study's research.

Although many environmental activists have protested fracking and continue to do so, there has been little study highlighting their concerns about poisoned groundwater, until now.

The study's computer modeling also predicted how fracking fluids would move over time, and concluded that fracking will drastically speed up the movement of underground chemicals from previous drilling, drawing them to the surface at a much more rapid rate than initially thought.

To add to the potentially dire consequences of fracking, many fear that chemical seepage isn't the only problem.

"Responsible analysts point to the more likely contamination routes nearer the surface: incidental spills, failure of casings and concrete, orphan wells, etc.," said Marcellus Shale Protest.

Myers also noted that the problem extends far beyond the Marcellus Shale, and that areas where fracking is the most frequent will see their groundwater at even greater risk. He adds, "One would have to say that the possible travel times for a similar thing in Arkansas or Northeast Texas is probably faster than what I've come up with [for Marcellus]."

Photo: Several activists protest fracking outside the Philadelphia convention center, arguing that the process has polluted air and water and made people sick.   Mark Stehle/AP

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  • Fracking is dangerous and has placed the public's safety and health at risk. Drinking water is now at risk of being contaminated.

    Posted by Ida, 06/08/2012 8:21pm (2 years ago)

  • The sky is falling! Everyone get out, quick!

    Posted by Meteorman , 05/12/2012 6:22pm (2 years ago)

  • I work for the gas industry.

    The information presented is flawed.

    First, not many companies use any form of benzene in their fracturing fluid.

    To educate your readers (rather than emotionally agitate them) the chemicals in fracturing fluid are there to lubricate the proppant (sand) so it can slide into the cracks made in the shale by the hydraulic pressure. Most of these lubricants are now food-based (ie: edible) Other chemicals prevent algae growth, just like those used in your swimming pool.

    Once the fracturing is complete, the fluid must be withdrawn from the well. This is the completion stage. This is where the actual hazardous materials are created because at these depths (8,000 feet plus) there is lots of saltwater and radioactive materials (radon, uranium, etc). These are all created by mother nature, not the drilling industry.

    In Pennsylvania, the industry recovers near 100% of the fluid put into the well. Therefore, there is little that can "migrate" up into any fresh water.

    Secondly, most fresh water aquifers are no deeper than 1,000 feet. So, any fluid that would migrate would have to travel thousands of feet (against gravity) up into the aquifer.

    Keep in mind that the purpose of fracturing is to create a channel for the gas to leave the shale and come to the surface. That channel is the cracks in the shale that lead to the well-bore itself.

    Fluid will take the path of least resistance. That path is back into the well-bore, not up against gravity and thousands of feet of rock, clay, sand, soil, etc.

    So, the bottom line here is that fluid is not desirable for a gas or oil well and is withdrawn. The moisture remaining is tiny and will have a very hard time migrating anywhere up toward fresh water when it is easier to flow into the well-bore. Water coming into the well-bore is natural, but loaded with salts, and is withdrawn on a regular basis (or the well dies).

    Some may ask what do we do with the fluid that is withdrawn? It is recycled into fracturing fluid again (reducing the need for water withdrawls from rivers), but it cannot contain the salts or radioactive particles. Those must be removed first.

    The salts have been used for roads in the winter for decades (NY State has used brine from oil and gas wells on their roads for a long time). The truly hazardous materials are isolated and disposed under strict EPA and state controls.

    In Pennsylvania, we have acid minewater that is created when rain flows through underground coal veins and turns to a very acidic fluid. The industry and state are discussing how to use this fluid for fracturing which would reduce the need for fresh water withdrawls from rivers even more.

    I hope some learned a bit from this. Do not buy the hysteria. The EPA has ruled that Dimmock well-water is safe. There is propoganda on both sides, so get the facts yourself and do not trust studies funded by environmental groups or industry groups.

    Just keep in mind that this is a domestic energy source, created by American workers earning above-average wages. Natural gas is clean and was supported by most environmental groups until it was found under our feet.

    Posted by Erik Latranyi, 05/12/2012 9:56am (2 years ago)

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