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Lustgarten reports: "A new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted."

A Cabot Oil and Gas hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania, 01/17/12. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A Cabot Oil and Gas hydraulic fracturing site in Springville, Pennsylvania, 01/17/12. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Study: Fracking Chemicals Can Migrate to Drinking Water Supplies Within Years

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica

06 May 12


new study has raised fresh concerns about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, concluding that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.

More than 5,000 wells were drilled in the Marcellus between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to the study, which was published in the journal Ground Water two weeks ago. Operators inject up to 4 million gallons of fluid, under more than 10,000 pounds of pressure, to drill and frack each well.

Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies. This view of the earth's underground geology is a cornerstone of the industry's argument that fracking poses minimal threats to the environment.

But the study, using computer modeling, concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, exacerbated by the effects of fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as "just a few years."

"Simply put, [the rock layers] are not impermeable," said the study's author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist whose clients include the federal government and environmental groups.

"The Marcellus shale is being fracked into a very high permeability," he said. "Fluids could move from most any injection process."

The research for the study was paid for by Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, two upstate New York organizations that have opposed gas drilling and fracking in the Marcellus.

Much of the debate about the environmental risks of gas drilling has centered on the risk that spills could pollute surface water or that structural failures would cause wells to leak.

Though some scientists believed it was possible for fracking to contaminate underground water supplies, those risks have been considered secondary. The study in Ground Water is the first peer-reviewed research evaluating this possibility.

The study did not use sampling or case histories to assess contamination risks. Rather, it used software and computer modeling to predict how fracking fluids would move over time. The simulations sought to account for the natural fractures and faults in the underground rock formations and the effects of fracking.

The models predict that fracking will dramatically speed up the movement of chemicals injected into the ground. Fluids traveled distances within 100 years that would take tens of thousands of years under natural conditions. And when the models factored in the Marcellus' natural faults and fractures, fluids could move 10 times as fast as that.

Where man-made fractures intersect with natural faults, or break out of the Marcellus layer into the stone layer above it, the study found, "contaminants could reach the surface areas in tens of years, or less."

The study also concluded that the force that fracking exerts does not immediately let up when the process ends. It can take nearly a year to ease.

As a result, chemicals left underground are still being pushed away from the drill site long after drilling is finished. It can take five or six years before the natural balance of pressure in the underground system is fully restored, the study found.

Myers' research focused exclusively on the Marcellus, but he said his findings may have broader relevance. Many regions where oil and gas is being drilled have more permeable underground environments than the one he analyzed, he said.

"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," Myers said.

Ground Water is the journal of the National Ground Water Association, a non-profit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.

Several scientists called Myers' approach unsophisticated and said that the assumptions he used for his models didn't reflect what they knew about the geology of the Marcellus Shale. If fluids could flow as quickly as Myers asserts, said Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University who has been a proponent of shale development, fracking wouldn't be necessary to open up the gas deposits.

"This would be a huge fracture porosity," Engelder said. "So I read this and I say, 'Golly, does this guy really understand anything about what these shales look like?' The concern then arises from using a model rather than observations."

Myers likened the shale to a cracked window, saying that samples showing it didn't contain fractures were small in size and were akin to only examining an intact section of glass, while a broader, scaled out view would capture the faults and fractures that could leak.

Both scientists agreed that direct evidence of fluid migration is needed, but little sampling has been done to analyze where fracking fluids go after being injected underground.

Myers says monitoring systems could be installed around gas well sites to measure for changes in water quality, a measure required for some gold mines, for example. Until that happens, Myers said, theoretical modeling has to substitute for hard data.

"We were trying to use the basic concepts of groundwater and hydrology and geology and say can this happen?" he said. "And that had basically never been done." your social media marketing partner


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+8 # Billy Bob 2012-05-06 22:05
If you STILL don't think we've hit PEAK OIL yet, you've already drank too much frack-water.
+2 # Regina 2012-05-06 23:23
"Light My Fire" takes on new meaning when it's the water supply carrying methane that's burning.
+2 # wcandler1 2012-05-07 02:01
Never mind water quality, fracking produces natural gas, a fossil fuel, and we have to STOP using fossil fuels! Tant pis.
0 # James38 2012-05-07 11:44
wcandler1, thank you for making the essential, most basic, and most important possible observation.

See my comment below. We must keep bringing this up. Our "Leaders" and the world must wake up and stop Climate Change.
+6 # oakes721 2012-05-07 07:18
The Blitzkreig speed of forced fracturing of our Earth's crust is telling enough. The American Indians call water the Spirit of the Valley because it seeks the lowest places. While this is true, it is idiotic to imagine that poison frack chemicals under 10,000 pounds of pressure will not meet. Water loves to absorb and carry things and will hold life-sustaining natural elements or bring illnesses if allowed to be poisoned by the profiteers who now hold reign. Poisoning people's waters is an act of war. A healthy life-giving planet is not an enemy to be vanquished. Only cancers destroy their own host.
+1 # James38 2012-05-07 11:35
"Scientists have theorized that impermeable layers of rock would keep the fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely locked nearly a mile below water supplies."

A person who would "believe" or "put faith" in such a statement is NOT a scientist, that person is an acolyte of the "Religion of Scientism", which is based on unchecked assumptions that defy logic and are based on wishful thinking and "scientific" fairy tales.

"If" fracking is going to continue, there should at least be an absolute legal requirement that anything injected into the ground MUST be non-toxic. To allow the inclusion of benzene and other toxic chemicals to be injected into the ground is just as stupid as injecting toxic chemicals into your body. The earth is a living organism, and the water system, both surface and underground, is its circulatory system, veins and arteries.

We need to give our planet a great deal more respect and care, or we will destroy the environment we came from, and depend on for our survival.

This "fracking Craziness" is just as suicidal as continuing all the fossil fuel burning that is destroying the stability of the atmosphere.

The human species is busily committing suicide by allowing itself to be murdered by greedy and stupid industrialists, politicians, and bogus "scientists".

They are aided by religionuts who oppose birth control and education, which would control over-population .
+1 # James38 2012-05-07 20:23
It is sad that few people are actively paying attention to this discussion. It is of great importance since the more the present toxic injections continue, the more and longer we will have contaminated water supplies in large parts of the country.

There are no studies showing how long such toxicity may continue, but I am afraid it could be for many years, even centuries. This is a type of heedless endangerment that is not justifiable. We fundamentally need to quit burning fossil carbon completely, not be seeking more sources of it, and certainly not seeking sources in this manner which compounds the negative effects.

With Fracking we not only get more fossil carbon to burn, we get contaminated water. You have all heard of win-win strategies. This is a Lose-Lose strategy of the most awful and ignorant sort.
+1 # man4earth 2012-05-07 21:13
The only path forward in energy, is renewables. Solar, ocean wave, geothermal and responsibly placed wind turbines need to be installed at a dramatically increased rate, so that dangerous nuclear and fossil fuel plants can be phased-out asap. We need this planet to be clean and healthy, so we can survive happy and healthy. Hurry, time is running out!
0 # James38 2012-05-08 11:27
man4earth, a few years ago I would have made such a statement. I was also opposed to nuclear energy. However, I continued to study the field, and finally discovered that modern reactor designs have completely changed the safety picture. You need to look up LIFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) and other modern Generation 4 designs. They are not only inherently safe, shutting down automatically with no external power or operator intervention required at all, but they can be designed to burn the existing stockpiles of "Nuclear Waste" as fuel, giving us power for hundreds of years and solving the storage problem.

Go to:
for much interesting information and history, and the quote below:

"October 5, 1966. The Enrico Fermi Fast Breeder Reactor suffers extensive core damage and melting when a piece of metal comes loose in its core and blocks the flow of sodium coolant to some of the fuel rods. Starved of coolant, the solid rods begin to melt and slump. No radiation escapes the containment but the core is heavily damaged and the reactor is shut down for nearly four years. The incident was the basis for a controversial book by John Fuller entitled “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Such an accident is impossible in the design of a molten-salt reactor since any flow blockage in the core would lead to a decrease in temperature (since the fluid is the fuel, rather than the coolant) rather than an increase."
0 # James38 2012-05-08 11:51
It is obvious that old generation 1 reactors can be dangerous, since operator error and interruptions of auxiliary power can cause meltdown. The Fukushima disaster was basically caused by the reactors being built in a totally stupid place. The earthquake would not have caused a meltdown if the tsunami had not disabled the auxiliary power; and there was operator error. Chernobyl was entirely caused by operator error, and then became a major disaster because the reactor design was incredibly primitive and had no containment structure at all.

The older reactors need to be phased out, but it is entirely wrong to lump all reactors in the same category and label all of them dangerous. One of the best ways to replace older reactors and coal burning plants is with modern Generation 3 and 4 reactors.

If there were no solution to the storage problem of long-lived radioactive "Waste", that in itself would make Nuclear Power undesirable, but as stated above, Generation 4 reactors can use the "Waste" as fuel, thus solving the storage problem. That converts the problem to energy, and the only material left unused is a tiny amount with short half-life (200 years instead of 20,000 years). There is no more storage problem. That small amount of low-level waste could be kept on site, or even mixed with dirt and buried, and the result would not raise the background radiation level beyond normal and acceptable levels.

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