Fracking has polluted aquifers across the United States. This is a major problem for millions of Americans drinking groundwater and surface water.
Hydraulic Fracturing and US Water Quality
“Hydraulic fracturing” – or “fracking,” for short– is an advanced method of natural gas extraction that has drawn the attention of environmentalists and water quality activists in recent years. Instead of traditional gas wells, which drill deep into large, pre-existing pockets of natural gas (methane) underground, fracking wells drill into “shale” rock containing gas-filled cracks. Hundreds of chemicals and millions of gallons of water are then pumped into the well under high pressure to break open the cracks in the shale.This releases the natural gas, which is then brought up to the surface and distributed to power plants, homes, and businesses.
While some hail fracking as the key to unlocking U.S. energy independence, others argue that it is dangerous to the environment and polluting drinking wells nationwide.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that some existing fracking operations have polluted aquifers and groundwater in the United States – and this is a major problem, because aquifers and groundwater are the source of tap water for millions of Americans. Though the injection of chemicals, extraction of toxic wastewater, and capturing of natural gas are supposed to happen within a secure and contained system, but human and technical failures are inevitable in every project.
Shoddy well construction, wastewater storage failures, and shallow surface wells allow pollutants to enter freshwater aquifers.
Experts have discovered a number of substances in drinking water near fracking operations, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also recently published a report which confirms the connection between fracking operations and groundwater pollution. Pollutants include known carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and radionuclides. A 2011 study also found that methane levels were significantly higher in water wells near fracking sites than those farther away.
Some residents living near fracking sites have even been able to light their tap water on fire due to elevated methane levels; see the documentary Gasland for similar findings. Others have reported discolored and foul-smelling tap water and a variety of health issues potentially related to their exposure.
Fracking causes pollution in a number of ways. Some common ways that used fracking water enters our water supply are:
- Poor well construction
- Wastewater storage failures
- Shallow surface wells
Poor well construction
Water and chemicals are pumped under high pressure through the ground, and much of that water-chemical mix travels back to the surface with natural gas through concrete-lined wells. This wastewater--now mixed with methane and rock--is even more toxic than the chemical mix pumped down to frack the shale gas.. If there are any cracks in the concrete-lined wells that carry wastewater back up, fracking fluids with methane can leak out into the soil and the underground aquifers that provide drinking water.
Wastewater storage failures
When wastewater it is pumped back to the surface, it is either put in open-air evaporation pits or taken to water treatment facilities off-site. There are very few safety regulations for evaporation pits – and if pits are poorly lined, fracking waste can leach through the soil and contaminate both soils and groundwater.
Additionally, not enough treatment facilities exist to handle the loads of wastewater coming from wells, and many facilities don’t even have the technology to deal with the cancer-causing and radioactive chemicals in wastewater. This can create “treated” water that isn’t completely clean, posing dangers when it’s released. The lack of treatment facilities has also led some companies to leave highly-toxic wastewater behind in evaporation pits.
Shallow surface wells
In other cases, wells are dug to tap into gas reserves that are too close to the surface. Shale deposits are typically 5,000 to 6,000 feet underground, but sometimes developers harvest gas from shallower deposits as low as 700 feet. This “shallow” fracking is increasingly common, especially in the western US. According to Robert Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University and author in a study of Wyoming drinking water, about half of the wells in California are around 2000 feet or less. Here, groundwater flows upward in response to the well pressures can cause contaminated fracking waste to flow upward and contaminate drinking water sources without the problem of well and infrastructure integrity.
Are you in a state with fracking operations?
As of April 2016, 21 states have fracking operations, as seen in the map created by Inside Climate News below: California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania. 5 more could begin operation soon: Nevada, Illinois, North Carolina, Florida, and Alaska. Maryland, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts had state bans or moratoria, and there are several local cities and counties with bans or moratoria.
This nationwide look at the fracking operations shows that a majority of states are active with fracking operations. Residents in states with active fracking operations should keep an eye on their water’s taste, look, and smell – and ideally test it to see if there are any dangerous pollutants. This is all the more important given that fracking is currently exempt from Safe Drinking Water Act restrictions, and industry information is kept largely confidential and operations are not strongly regulated.
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