From Dish, Texas, to Dimock, Pa.
Hydraulic fracking spells disaster
Published May 6, 2010 8:28 PM
Despite industry claims that the rapidly expanding practice of hydraulic
fracturing to extract natural gas from deep underground shale layers is
“perfectly safe,” on April 15 the Pennsylvania Department of
Environmental Protection fined Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas $240,000 for
causing the contamination of 14 residential water wells in Dimock Township,
The company was also ordered to plug three gas wells it was operating in the
town, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, and was banned from
drilling in the area. One water well in Dimock exploded last year, and DEP
inspectors witnessed gas bubbling up at the base of eight other wells in March.
Despite the ruling, Cabot has plans to drill 100 new wells in Dimock this
Independent newsroom ProPublica has reported on 50 similar cases across
Pennsylvania, including reports of fish kills, water and air pollution, fires,
out-of-control flaring, human illnesses and animal deaths.
The concern over the safety of hydraulic fracturing has prompted calls for a
moratorium on drilling in Pennsylvania. In the process, often referred to as
fracking, 2 to 9 millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and up to 250
chemicals, are pushed into underground shale layers to release natural gas.
In January the Pennsylvania state Legislature opened up 32,000 additional acres
of state forest land to be leased for drilling. As a result, 692,000 acres of
the 2.1 million acres of state forest land are now open for gas wells. During a
recent push to expand the practice into the Delaware River basin, the
Philadelphia City Council was pressured to pass a resolution on March 25
calling for an environmental impact statement before any new permits are
Fracking has been in use for a number of years throughout the U.S.,
particularly in the Southwest. Five natural gas sites border the town of Dish,
Texas, in a quarter-mile complex. In nearby Fort Worth, Texas, 1,400 wells have
been drilled in urban areas, many near schools and residential centers.
Speaking at a meeting at Temple University’s Department of Civil and
Environmental Engineering on April 16, Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman described how
carcinogenic air pollution from natural gas drilling has damaged the quality of
life in his town of 180 residents. The town sits atop the Barnett Shale, a
geological formation similar to the Marcellus Shale.
Using his own money, Tillman has been traveling to Pennsylvania and New York to
warn about the dangers of the gas boom. In his small town, trees are dying on a
30-acre farm that adjoins a labyrinth of small underground pipelines used to
transport fuel from the fracking wells to outside markets. Horses have also
fallen ill. Residents report problems with frequent nausea, severe headaches,
breathing difficulties, chronic eye irritation, allergies, throat irritations
and even brain disorders.
When Texas state inspectors, who are usually linked to the drilling companies,
reported they could not find any problem with the wells, Dish town officials
hired an environmental firm to collect one-day air samples near the
compressors. Their study found high levels of 15 chemicals, including benzene,
a known carcinogen. As a result the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
conducted air studies at 94 sites in the region. They found two sites with very
high levels of benzene and 19 others with levels that raised concern.
In April, blood and urine testing of 28 adult Dish residents revealed that half
the residents had slightly elevated levels of benzene and other contaminants.
Four residents tested positive for benzene, including Tillman. Tillman noted
that no testing was done on children, pregnant women or the elderly —
groups likely to be most susceptible to the contaminants. Tillman’s water
also tested positive for traces of styrene, ethyl benzene and xylene.
Growing concern over the danger of fracking has led to a push for legislation
in Pennsylvania that would require drillers to disclose chemical ingredients in
hydraulic fracturing fluids. Other proposed legislation calls for a moratorium
on drilling until environmental impact studies can be performed. Both bills
have yet to be passed and face mounting opposition from the natural gas
Nationally, the oil and gas industry won exemption from major provisions of the
Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental
laws with the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill. The bill’s
“Halliburton loophole” protected the company from having to reveal
the composition of their fracturing fluid, despite the fact that the list of
hazardous substances compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s
Superfund — the program established to address abandoned hazardous waste
sites — includes toxic profiles on benzene, styrene, toluene and other
agents known to be in the mix. Efforts are also underway to challenge this
The EPA announced it will spend $4.4 million to start a study on the impact of
fracturing in October, but Dr. Michel Boufadel, director of the Environmental
Hydrology and Hydraulics Laboratory at Temple University College of
Engineering, expressed concerns that the EPA’s study does not go far
Speaking at the April 16 meeting, Boufadel noted that very few scientific
studies on fracking have been conducted by researchers not connected to the
drilling industry. He also pointed out that most studies assume that any leak
of water contaminated by fracturing fluids would spread horizontally from a
holding tank and be detected by ground level monitors.
Boufadel explained that the 250 chemicals contained in the fracturing fluid
create “gooey, high density water” — a gel that suspends the
sand particles needed to work into cracks in the shale layers. The result is
“radioactive water six times more saline than sea water and containing
“If you don’t account for this heavy density you would expect water
to move outward, but the reality is that it moves down,” Boufadel
stressed. “If you only use existing traditional models of monitoring
wells at ground level, you won’t detect contamination until it’s
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