May 11, 2011

Gas Drilling Method May Cause Water Well Contamination, Study Finds

Researchers find high methane levels in wells near drilling operations

Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method for extracting natural gas from the earth, may be responsible for contaminating water wells with methane, according research released this week.

A team of Duke University scientists tested wells in Pennsylvania and New York, and found that on average, wells within one mile of a drilling site has methane levels 17 times higher than normal, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Of 60 water wells tested, 85% had measurable methane levels. Fourteen of them had levels exceeding the Department of Interior hazard range for methane from coalmines. Nine had levels so high that the government would recommend immediate action. According to the report, the worse case is in Bradford County, Pa., where a woman can light her tap water on fire. She leased her property to a gas company, and has a gas well 800 ft from her home.

The research does not show how the gas got in the water, but testing shows that it is the type of methane from deep underground, where gas companies drill to find it. The researchers could not prove that hydraulic fracturing is the cause of contamination, however, because they do not have before-and-after data for the water wells.

Methane gas is not known to be toxic, but it can cause loss of consciousness or death because it replaces the oxygen needed to breathe. It is also flammable, presenting a risk of explosion.