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EPA report is blessing in disguise for fracking advocates

by Donovan Schafer

In a recent report, the EPA linked groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, to the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) used to extract oil and gas. You can almost hear the collective “Hooray!” from anti-fracking advocates. But the actual data in the EPA report make it clear that fracking is safe.

The Wyoming report found contamination in two deep monitoring wells that were drilled specifically to detect contamination. But in addition to these wells, the EPA tested 51 domestic wells and not a single one of these wells showed any signs of contamination that could be linked to fracking.

Strangely, this information is not made clear in the EPA report. Instead, it is buried in the lab data. There are literally thousands of “ND” (Not Detected) entries for every imaginable compound and chemical that the EPA thought it could link to fracking. Yet these results, for all 51 domestic wells, are not discussed or presented anywhere in the EPA’s sensation-seeking report.

While the deep monitoring wells do appear to link fracking to groundwater contamination, they do not link fracking to drinking water contamination. It’s misleading when the EPA report says that an Underground Source of Drinking Water (“USDW”) was contaminated, because the EPA’s definition of USDWs is so ambiguous that the entire 3,000-foot-thick Wind River Formation (the one beneath Pavillion) is lumped into a single USDW, even though it has more than 30 separate freshwater zones.

So was any drinking water contaminated, and is anyone’s health at risk? The results from the 51 domestic wells respond with a resounding “No!”

The fact that none of the domestic wells were affected by fracking is even more impressive when we consider the circumstances and the complex geology of Pavillion. The depths of the domestic wells were separated from the fractured zone by as little as 400 feet, which is incredibly small when compared to operations in Colorado and throughout the country.

Geologically speaking, the ground beneath Pavillion is a mess. Most regions have multiple clay-rich layers that spread uniformly throughout the area and act as impenetrable barriers between fracking and groundwater. Pavillion has none of these layers, and therefore represents a worst case scenario by which we can test the safety of fracking. As the 51 domestic wells show, fracking does indeed pass this test.

No doubt, anti-fracking groups will retort that the EPA found benzene, a carcinogen, in the deepest monitoring well at levels 49 times higher than the EPA limit. But this well was drilled deeper than any domestic well in the entire area, and when the EPA tested for benzene in domestic wells it came up empty handed. Furthermore, the EPA limit on benzene is extreme. The average person absorbs more than 36 times the EPA limit, every day, from sources including candles, incense, and campfires.

Fortunately, here in Colorado, there’s no need to argue about chemical limits, because unlike Pavillion, the fractured zones are separated from groundwater by, not hundreds, but thousands of feet. Take, for instance, the Wattenberg field in Weld County. Oil and gas in this field come from the Niobrara Shale and the Codell Sandstone, both of which are separated from the deepest aquifers by more than 4,000 feet of impermeable rock.

What happened in Pavillion was the first incident ever recorded, in which fracking was shown to have contaminated groundwater. It happened under unique circumstances, in the worst of all geological settings, and resulted in a level of contamination (in a well that nobody uses) comparable to the exposures from everyday life.

Although the EPA seems eager to increase its own power by scaring Americans away from fracking, the facts about Pavillion help us understand why fracking in Colorado is the safest, most environmentally benign way to grow tens of thousands of new jobs in Colorado’s energy economy.

This article was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, December 17, 2011.