The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

US Federal Report Confirms Water Pollution by Fracking

Based on limited data, EPA study finds no 'widespread' impacts.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 8 Jun 2015 |

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Nikiforuk's book on hydraulic fracturing and the Jessica Ernst case, Slick Water, will be published this fall by Greystone Books.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

Despite being limited by data gaps, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that hydraulic fracturing technology has polluted ground and surface water in cases ranging from Alberta to Pennsylvania.

The 500-page draft report reverses the findings of a 2004 EPA study that concluded that the technology, which involves the high-pressure injection of fluids, gases, chemicals, water and sand into rock formations that hold oil and gas, posed no risk to groundwater.

While the report found that fracking has not led to "widespread" water pollution across the U.S., it does debunk claims that the technology has never contaminated groundwater or that industry never fracks directly into drinking water aquifers.

"Some hydraulic fracturing operations are conducted within formations that contain drinking water resources," the report found.

"In one field in Alberta, Canada, there is evidence that fracturing in the same formation as a drinking water resource (in combination with well integrity problems... led to gas migration into water wells."

The previous Tory government of Alberta long maintained that "there has not been a single documented case of hydraulic fracturing fluids contaminating a domestic water well in Alberta." 

The government of British Columbia has made a similar claim: "In the five decades that hydraulic fracturing has been used in British Columbia, no case of drinking water contamination has occurred from the hydraulic fracturing process."

John Cherry, a leading expert on groundwater contamination, last year warned that no Canadian jurisdiction had set up proper monitoring to protect groundwater in areas of intense oil and gas activity.

"The EPA did no substantial groundwater monitoring using modern methods in fracking areas and so they, as an organization, are not in a strong position to draw conclusions about the longer-term cumulative impacts" Cherry told the Tyee.

Hampered by data gaps

The extensive EPA study, which had been delayed for years, reported that fracking operations, which also generate vast volumes of wastewater including radioactive particles, can contaminate groundwater and surface water in a number of ways.

Operations above ground can typically spill hydraulic fracturing fluids, chemicals and salty wastewater into ground and surface waters.

Underground fracking operations have propelled fluids and gases out of the targeted fracture areas "into underground drinking water resources," often through pre-existing fractures and pathways such as nearby abandoned or leaky wells, the report found.

The EPA reported that fracking had contaminated 25 per cent of 36 water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania, though the agency "did not find mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

In contrast, state agencies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia have reported myriad problems, including hundreds of complaints about groundwater contamination due to fracking.

Between 2011 and 2014, industry fracked between 25,000 and 30,000 wells in both deep and shallow formations for oil and gas in the U.S.

The EPA qualified its central finding -- that water contamination is real but not severe -- by explaining that its investigation was hampered by significant scientific gaps, including insufficient baseline data on quality of drinking water resources prior to fracking; poor or non-existent groundwater monitoring; and in some cases inaccessible data on well locations, as well as chemicals used by industry.

A number of cases couldn't be included in the report due to the signing of confidentiality agreements, it said: "Data limitations in most of those cases (including the unavailability of information in litigation settlements resulting in sealed documents) make it impossible to definitively assess whether or not hydraulic fracturing was a cause of the contamination in these cases."

Information on the thousand-plus chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing, for example, "is not complete and limits the understanding of potential impacts on drinking water resources," the report said.

582px version of EPAFrackingMap_610px.jpg
Source: EPA.

The report reviewed five specific contamination cases that showed how "construction issues, sustained casing pressure, and the presence of natural faults and fractures can work together to create pathways for fluids to migrate toward drinking water resources."

In North Dakota, a rupture at one fracking site allowed fluids to escape to the surface. In short order, brine and tert-butyl alcohol "were detected in two nearby water wells."

In Colorado, the EPA found that bad cement jobs "allowed methane and benzene to migrate along the production well and through natural faults and fractures to drinking water in the Mamm Creek Field."

And in Bainbridge, Ohio, "inadequately cemented casing in a hydraulically fractured well contributed to the buildup of natural gas and high pressures along the outside of a production well. This ultimately resulted in the movement of natural gas into local drinking water aquifers."    

Contamination spreads, expert warns

Proponents of hydraulic fracturing, which allows industry to crack into previously low-grade and uneconomic oil and gas formations, immediately seized on the report's findings that fracking incidents were not widespread.

U.S. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, for example, told the Tulsa World that the EPA report vindicates the technology from claims that it contaminates water wells and contributes to water shortages.

"This is the latest in a series of failed attempts by the (Obama) administration to link hydraulic fracturing to systematic drinking water contamination," Inhofe said in a statement to the paper.

Yet the report details several cases where the EPA investigated contamination reports directly after fracking operations and found big problems.

Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell fracking expert and a member of PSE Healthy Energy, a group that favours severely limiting fracking for health and economic reasons, found the report's confirmation of groundwater contamination "deeply alarming."

"Headlines to the effect that this contamination appears not yet 'widespread' are hardly reassuring," added Ingraffea.  "Contamination of a single drinking water well today can become contamination of an entire aquifer tomorrow."

One of the weaknesses of the new EPA study, Ingraffea said, is that it doesn't include state enforcement data as well as "studies and agency data that are highly relevant to the impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities on drinking water resources."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment


The EPA's first study on the technology, "Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reservoirs," found that fracking was safe and largely reflected the views of the George W. Bush administration.

The report was a government response to complaints and legal challenges related to the impacts of shallow fracking of coal formations across the U.S. -- the precursor to the shale gas revolution.

Despite extensive evidence of methane migration into groundwater in Colorado, West Virginia and Alabama, the agency concluded in its 2004 report that "the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coalbed methane wells poses little or no threat" to drinking water and "does not justify additional study at this time."

At the same time the report noted that the coalbed methane industry had not only, in 10 out of 11 coal basins, fracked coal seams containing drinking water, but had done so with toxic fracking fluids, such as diesel fuel.

To address these problems, the EPA championed a voluntary and unenforceable offer by three major fracking companies to stop using diesel fuel. Diesel fuel remains a key fracking ingredient in parts of the U.S. and Canada, particularly in Alberta.

The seven-member peer review panel that signed off on the report included many industry representatives. Not one groundwater or contamination expert was included in the panel.

-- Andrew Nikiforuk

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll