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NYT Article Uncovers E.P.A. Report on Water Contamination Caused by Fracking Over 20 Years Ago

August 8, 2011

The recent New York Times article “A Tainted Water Well, and Concern There May Be More” by Ian Urbina challenges the frequently recited pro-gas industry statement that “fracking has never contaminated underground drinking water.”

Urbina sheds light on an often forgotten documented case of well water contamination caused by fracking in West Virginia over 20 years ago.

 The report is not recent — it was published in 1987, and the contamination was discovered in 1984. Drilling technology and safeguards in well design have improved significantly since then. Nevertheless, the report does contradict what has emerged as a kind of mantra in the industry and in the government.

The report concluded that hydraulic fracturing fluids or gel used by the Kaiser Exploration and Mining Company contaminated a well roughly 600 feet away on the property of James Parsons in Jackson County, W.Va., referring to it as “Mr. Parson’s water well.”

Urbina also addresses the challenge posed by the legal technicalities of settlements that (conveniently) stand in the way of more fully understanding cases of contamination related to natural gas drilling:

In their report, E.P.A. officials also wrote that Mr. Parsons’ case was highlighted as an “illustrative” example of the hazards created by this type of drilling, and that legal settlements and nondisclosure agreements prevented access to scientific documentation of other incidents.

“This is typical practice, for instance, in Texas,”  the report stated. “In some cases, the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review.”

Since the technology has evolved since the late 1980s, gas companies are now more than ever willing to hastily move ahead with the boom of high volume hydraulic fracturing even though the process and the threat it poses on public health and the environment are still not completely understood.

One E.P.A. official involved with a current study being conducted by the agency on the risks of fracking on drinking water said the agency encountered continuing challenges to get access to current cases because of legal settlements.

“Our hands are tied,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

Read the entire article here and then view a useful graphic created by the New York Times that helps visualize the way in which drilling a natural gas well leaked toxic fluids into “Mr. Parson’s water well.”

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