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The topic of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking or hydrofracturing) and its potential effects on groundwater have dominated recent water industry news. WQP Associate Editor Kristin Muckerheide caught up with Marianne R. Metzger of National Testing Laboratories to discuss fracking’s effects and what we can expect in the future.
Kristin Muckerheide: How does hydraulic fracturing affect well water and groundwater?
Marianne R. Metzger: Hydraulic fracturing is a process used to remove natural gas from shale deposits. This is accomplished by drilling down several hundred feet deep, and then there is horizontal drilling from that point, which can extend for several hundred feet. Once the drilling is done, a mixture of water, chemical additives and proppant (sand-like material) is pumped down the borehole under pressure. The mixture flows into the various cracks, and the proppant holds open these cracks to eventually let out the natural gas to the surface.
While precautions are taken to protect our aquifers by casing the borehole through the water table, the act of opening these small cracks will eventually allow naturally occurring contaminants like methane to migrate into the aquifer. Methane has been slowly migrating up into aquifers for hundreds of years, but the process of fracking may be speeding that up. I think it is just common sense that these cracks that are now being held open for natural gas will also carry other contaminants—possibly radiologicals or other naturally occurring contaminants.
Muckerheide: What research is currently being done on hydrofracturing?
Metzger: Research is being done by various groups, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], gas companies, associations—including the American Petroleum Institute—and environmental activist groups. There has been a large focus of research on the potential contamination of drinking water sources, specifically groundwater.
Another concern, especially in Ohio, where deep well injection is used to dispose of fracking waste, [is that] there has been an increase of earthquakes suspected to be caused by the deep injection.
More recently, they are also looking at potential air pollution in the areas surrounding the drill sites. Results will help in developing regulations to improve safe practices and protect public health when it comes to hydrofracturing.
Muckerheide: Is the current research adequate? Why or why not?
Metzger: While there are many studies currently being conducted, I personally think it is too little, too late. We have a tendency in this country to act first and then find out if we are harming ourselves and the environment by our actions. In fact, when the U.S. Energy Policy Act was signed in 2005, it fully exempted the oil and gas industry from provisions in the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, [the] Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, allowing this industry to operate with no oversight from the EPA.
Muckerheide: What solutions and treatment options exist for contaminated water supplies?
Metzger: There are plenty of treatment systems that can take care of methane, volatile organics and other contaminants that may result, most notably aeration and carbon filtration. As I tell a lot of my customers, there is a treatment for just about any contamination problem; however, it could be at a significant cost.
Muckerheide: Should people be concerned about hydrofracturing? Why or why not?
Metzger: People should absolutely be concerned; not only is there a concern about water contamination from the fracking process itself, but there are other things to consider, including the noise from the drill site, air pollution, waste stream generated, waste retention ponds, increased truck traffic and heavy equipment, which can also contribute to environmental contamination.
We are now starting to see how these gas wells are negatively impacting home and property values, as there have been instances in which mortgage companies will refuse a mortgage on a property that is located near a gas well. I highly recommend that anyone with a private well in areas where gas drilling is occurring has their water tested and speaks to a lawyer regarding language in any lease addressing water quality.