“The country certainly needs energy. It also needs drinking water. Whether it can have both remains an open question.
– Mark Fischetti (2010, p. 85)
Fracking companies routinely reassure the public that their operations do not contaminate local water supplies. In fact, they take it one step further and assert that there is no possible way that fracking could contaminate well water, since “fracking” occurs deep underground – well below where most water tables reside. Yet the pseudo-science they base this argument on is as full of cracks as the rock they frack.
Does fracking contaminate well water? (H2)
The industry’s main defense is to claim that fracking is not powerful enough to burrow through thousands of feet of rock, which is what separates the underground fracking site from groundwater in most cases. Therefore fracking cannot possibly be responsible for water contamination …or so they claim. Yet this argument is more of a bait and switch that ignores several blatant realities that exist in the real world.
H1: How fracking can contaminate the local water supply
First of all, fracking does not need to blow a hole through thousands of feet of rock in order to contaminate groundwater. It merely needs to crack into natural fissures that are already there in the rocks in order to leech these toxic chemicals into groundwater supplies. There are also abandoned wells or previous drill holes from decades past scattered throughout the land that nobody knows are there. Ecologist and water resource expert Robert B. Jackson notes that many places in Northeastern Pennsylvania and Upstate New York are “riddled with abandoned wells. And decades ago people didn’t case wells, and they didn’t plug wells when they were finished. Imagine this Swiss cheese of boreholes going down thousands of feet – we don’t know where they are.” (Mooney, 2011)
This is especially a problem in lateral fracking, in which companies drill down to the rock and then sideways or “lateral” to the ground. They then frack this rock along the lateral drill, which gives them a much wider fracking area from which to draw oil and gas from. But this larger fracking area means more potential for this fracking site to hit an old well or a natural fissure. If this happens, that old hole can act just like a straw, bringing the fracking chemicals and other natural contaminants right up into groundwater supplies.
Then there’s the well itself. In order to frack in the first place, companies must drill a well shaft down to the shale material they’ll be fracking. They then line this hole with cement. But when you’re shooting water down a hole at pressures great enough to shatter rock, this same pressure is certainly powerful enough to create cracks in the well shaft anywhere the cement might be subpar…including in spots that would leech directly into groundwater. This is, once again, especially true for lateral fracking, which requires more intense pressures.
“If you do a poor job of installing the well casing, you potentially open a pathway for the stuff to flow out,” says Jackson. When you’re talking wells that go down thousands of feet, that’s a lot of area that needs to be perfectly cased, and a lot of potential for imperfections. As you might recall, well casings have been a major fail-point for companies, as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Yet in land wells, failures are even more common than they are at sea. “A significant percentage of cement jobs will fail,” says Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University who’s an expert on fracking. “It will always be that way. It just goes with the territory,” he states, noting that poor cementing accounts for a number of groundwater contamination cases. (Mooney, 2011)
The fracking industry likes to play a shell game of misinformation, basing their “safety” claims on perfect-case scenarios and even leaving out entire parts of their operation as though fracking takes place in isolation to everything else around it. This irks experts such as Ingraffea: “I just wish the industry would stop playing the game of ‘Fracking doesn’t cause the contamination. You’ve got to drill to frack. It’s a matter of semantics and definition that they’re hiding behind.” (ibid)
Toxins in tap water as a result of fracking(h2)
Dramatic illustrations of this groundwater contamination can be found in the videos posted on the Internet of people lighting their tap water on fire as a result of fracking. Research suggests this is not at all uncommon. A Duke University study published in May 2011 found that methane levels in dozens of drinking-water wells within a kilometer (3,280 feet) of new fracking sites were 17-times higher than wells farther away. (Scientific American, 2011) They concluded that there was “systematic evidence for methane contamination” in household drinking water near fracking sites. Methane makes for a fiery show, but there can be things in the water far more worrisome than methane. When a concerned midwife who had dealt with a spate of problems decided to test the water after her clients reported their water “tasted bad,” she found levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), in amounts MORE THAN 7,000-TIMES that of the EPA’s threshold for safety. (Solotaroff, 2015)
It’s possible to easily add a tracer to fracking fluids that would make them easy to trace, so that we would know precisely where they ended up and where this contamination was coming from. (Mooney, 2011) This wouldn’t tell the whole story, as many fracking-related contaminants come from natural earth elements that would be impossible to trace, but it’s a start. Yet needless to say, the industry fiercely opposes even this simple idea, and so far the EPA seems none too interested in forcing it upon them. If what they claim were true, they should be eager to put a tracer in the fluid and settle the issue once and for all. Instead they actively suppress such information.
Fracking & Water Quality: The bigger picture (H2)
What’s really concerning is that nobody knows for certain how extensive this contamination is. It is indisputable that some communities have lost their access to clean tap water because of fracking. But how far does this ripple go? Are entire water tables at risk? History provides plenty of cause for concern. We’ve turned many of our rivers on the surface of the Earth into toxic waste dumps. If whole-scale fracking continues to occur for any extensive period of time, there’s certainly the potential to pollute entire water tables, essentially turning our underground water reserves into the subterranean equivalent of the Hudson River. This would be a disaster of epic proportions.
The fracking industry would no doubt call such views alarmist. Trust us, they would say. Trust the companies whose very existence depends on a backhanded exemption to the clean water act given to them by Dick Cheney. Trust the people who run away from a simple test that would either vindicate or indict their industry. Trust the people who hide behind obscure provisions of the “Intellectual property” laws in order to keep the public in the dark about the chemicals they are using. Forgive me for being skeptical and fearing the worst.
Right on cue, as soon as I finished writing this, reports started to turn up suggesting that this precise thing was happening, and that chemical contamination from fracking sites was being spread throughout underground water tables. The real concern is what happens after fracking continues for another 20 or 30 years, and what type of pollution this will bring to our underground aquifers.