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Study Shows Drinking Water Contamination Related to Fracking

A new study from Duke University lends credence to the theory promoted by Joshua Fox in his Oscar-nominated film Gasland that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, causes flammable drinking water.

According to the study, available here, fracking causes methane contamination, mostly through seepage of the gas being extracted, that leads to the spectacle of water out of your faucet that can be lit on fire.

The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, strongly implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.

“Our results show evidence for methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems in at least three areas of the region and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide,” the article states.

The group tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling areas in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York State. Sixty of those wells were tested for dissolved gas. While most of the wells had some methane, the water samples taken closest to the gas wells had on average 17 times the levels detected in wells further from active drilling. The group defined an active drilling area as within one kilometer, or about six tenths of a mile, from a gas well.

If facts had the ability to change the debate, we’d all be celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Emergency Climate Change Relief act of 2006. But there’s a visual here of flammable drinking water that’s hard to deny, try as the natural gas companies might (their latest claim is that instances of contamination are “anecdotal”). If there’s any good news for the gas industry, it’s that no evidence was found that the chemicals used in fracking contaminated the wells. But the seepage is enough to create a hazardous situation, as much for the presence of methane in the home – which could create explosions or even asphyxiation – as the presence in the drinking water.

Fracking happens to be a major issue in many swing states in the Midwest and West, like Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The activists working on this issue now have a scientific basis for their concern. The gas industry is resigned to calling this a “natural condition” or a series of isolated incidents. At a local level, the activists could now have at least more momentum for their argument.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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