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New Study: Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years

May 2, 2012

A new peer-reviewed scientific study has concluded that fracking chemicals injected into the ground could migrate toward drinking water supplies far more quickly than some experts had previously predicted. Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica reports on the significance of the study’s findings here:

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.”

Dr. Michel Boufadel, a Temple University engineer, hydrogeologist and world-class expert on oil spills; Paul Rubin, a geologist who has provided expert testimony for legal actions calling for a moratorium on gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin; and other experts have, in fact, been explaining patiently for at least four years that the naturally fractured shale is not, as the industry claims, an “impermeable layer.” But as Lustgarten points out, this ground-breaking study is the first peer-reviewed study of its kind.

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea has already established, based on PA DEP data, that Marcellus Shale well casings have failed at a rate of 6.2% in Pennsylvania in 2010 and 2011, causing immediate fluid migration (lecture by Ingraffea at “Marcellus Exposed” symposium, March 17th, 2012). But this new study shows that even without casing failures, fluid migration into aquifers will occur, and faster than almost anyone thought. Here are a few more of its findings:

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.

This new peer-reviewed study is a big deal, and the industry is sure to bring out the big guns at top speed to attack it. Unlike public health advocates, experts and reasonable people concerned about future generations, whether defined as tens of years or 10,000 years, the industry is heavily focused on the bottom line and on keeping a close guard on their toxic secrets in order to make it appear that massive, long-term fracking is here to stay — even though renewable energy provides more jobs.

With the shale gas industry doing everything it can to escalate the “boom” phase of their boom and bust cycle, your voice is needed. Direct and personal individual contact with your legislators to clearly express your concerns is essential. So please read the full report about the study with close attention. Then, immediately, today, call your state and federal legislators to demand a moratorium on unconventional gas drilling, which poses too many risks to our health and safety. You can find their numbers and contact information (send them this study) at or just google “Find My Legislator”!

  1. May 2, 2012 1:38 pm

    Of course Energy in Depth is on this story within the 24-hour news cycle, disparaging it briefly here on their site.

    n their breathless attempt to debunk this story, they wrongly name Dr. Anthony Ingraffea as the “independent” consultant who authored the Ground Water report, when in fact the ProPublica article states that it was “Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist whose clients include the federal government and environmental groups.” In case they realize their mistake, I have made a screen shot of it to preserve it against coming down. Here’s what EID writes:

    “Update XI (5:19 p.m. ET; May 1) — An “independent” consultant from Reno, Nevada — hired by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and Earthworks (among others) to write about Pavillion — has decided, through a priori means, that EPA was actually right about water contamination there. The only problem? Not even the EPA believes that anymore. Otherwise, why would that agency have agreed to suspend the independent review process and complete new sampling?

    Interestingly, this same “independent” consultant from Nevada is featured in a ProPublica article today claiming that contaminants in the Marcellus region may soon migrate up through two miles of solid rock and into drinking water sources — all thanks to hydraulic fracturing. The funder of that study? The Park Foundation. The “independent” reviewer? Cornell professor and well-known shale critic Anthony Ingraffea. Amazing how these things come together, isn’t it?”

    These people are seeing Dr. Ingraffea in their nightmares, no doubt. Can’t get him off their minds.

  2. Marguerite permalink
    May 4, 2012 10:19 am

    Even in a total vacuum, a 6.2% casing failure rate is incomprehensibly HUGE.


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