Since 2005, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has been exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. There was said to be no link between fracking and groundwater contamination. As development increased, so did reports of contaminated groundwater in places like the tiny town of Pavillion, where gas wells outnumber residents. Here, residents are warned not to drink or cook with their water and are told to “ventilate” because of unsafe levels of natural gas in their drinking wells.
In late 2011 the EPA released a draft report and data analysis of an ongoing investigation on groundwater in the area. The investigation, at the request of residents, aims to determine the source of groundwater contamination. The report draws numerous lines of evidence and strong connections between fracking operations and chemicals being used for fracking in Pavillion and the area’s source groundwater. It also links the presence of natural gas in drinking wells with natural gas production.
The release of the draft report caused a spectacle, and state, federal and tribal agencies have now caught in a bureaucratic holding pattern, while residents affected by contaminated water wait in a form of investigative limbo. With controversy over the number of Encana representatives on the investigative team outnumbering the number of Pavillion community representatives, many residents in Pavillion feel that they have not gotten any closer to remediating, or even slowing, the damages to their community's health and well-being caused by fracking.
The EPA installed a pair of deep monitoring wells to test water from the Wind River Formation. A whole variety of petroleum compounds started showing up in the groundwater such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, naphthalene, methane and known fracking fluid chemicals like 2-butoxyethanol. The character and pH of the water is unusual, potassium and chloride concentrations are extremely high, and the report argues that it’s unlikely these compounds came from a natural source.
Waste fluid pits were also identified as sources of contamination in shallow groundwater. Water collected near these pits was found to contain extremely high levels of benzene – 78 times the health standard for the compound. There are at least 33 of these pits in the Pavillion area.
The cement casings meant to seal off the well holes are another area of concern. The report found deficiencies in the cement casings to be common, including in areas directly above where fracking was taking place.
The report raises many concerns, and for the first time, presents pretty strong evidence that fracking should not be done near sources of drinking water. Residents are grateful to the EPA for addressing their concerns and acting on them. They are happy that the source of contamination is starting to be identified and hope that the responsible parties will be required to remediate damages and the negative impacts on the community’s health.
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