A peer reviewed study published by Duke University researchers earlier this week uncovered flammable drinking water around nature gas extraction sites in the Northeastern United States. A scientist who coauthored the study has asked the industry to come clean and share its own data.
The study examined the environmental effects of hydro-fracking, a controversial mining technique that is employed to extract natural gas from shale. A borehole is dug deep into the ground to inject a proprietary chemical mix that breaks up and opens channels in rock formations; gas is then expelled from the rock and collected.
Fracking firms are not required to disclose what chemicals are used in the process, and critics warn that acute environmental contamination is possible. A 2010 documentary called “Gasland” uncovered widespread groundwater contamination in regions where fracking occurred.
Duke University's research showed a definite correlation, but gas industry sources dismissed the research on the grounds that it did not include any baseline data to prove that drilling is what caused the methane contamination (Note: these are the same people who pumped diesel fuel into the ground during a period of regulatory lapse).
SmartPlanet interviewed Duke University's Dr. Avner Vengosh, one of the study's principle contributors, and learned that gas firms are sitting on baseline data that would prove invaluable in determining the safety of the hydrofracking. Here's what Dr. Vengosh had to say:
David Worthington: Should methane concentrations in drinking water be regulated, and should gas companies bear that cost?
Dr. Avner Vengosh: The study shows that private wells near shale gas wells might have high methane. So the answer is yes, drinking water wells near shale gas drilling and hydrofracking should be monitored. The cost is something the authorities need to decide.
Worthington: Do industry claims that the existence of no “baseline” before-and-after data and direct proof that no drilling wells caused the methane contamination have any validity?
Vengosh: Our data shows that drinking water wells located less than a kilometer from an active shale gas well have high methane and different chemical and isotopic properties relative to more distance wells. This was very clear in our study. The industry has the baseline data in many areas and should publish it.
Worthington: Is there a need for more peer-reviewed research on drinking water contamination?
Vengosh: Absolutely, our research is the first peer-reviewed study on water contamination but more studies looking at different aspects of gas drilling and hydrofracking should follow. We plan to do so.
Worthington: Could this research be used in civil lawsuits?
Vengosh: I do not know.
Worthington: In lieu of strong oversight from States, should the EPA become involved in regulating hydrofracking operations and practices?
Vengosh: Given that the regulations are so different between the states and that our study reveals that our understanding on the environmental impacts is limited, yes EPA should be actively involved in regulating hydrofracking operations and practices.
Worthington: Would it be reasonable to call for a moratorium on hydrofracking?
Vengosh: I would not go that far [at this] point, but more scientific research is needed before we make any decision.
Worthington: Are important downstream waterways such as the Delaware River at risk?
Vengosh: As far as I know there are no hydrofracking operations in its watershed. Our study focused on the potential impacts on shallow wells associated with gas drilling and hydrofracking. In the paper we do not report on the possible impacts upon disposal or spills fracking water and produced water that could affect the watershed. We are working on this now.
Worthington: Is municipally treated water in areas surrounded drilling sites safer to drink than well water?
Vengosh: We did not test that so I cannot provide an answer.
Worthington: How much of a health risk do the levels your team observed pose?
Vengosh: There are no regulations or reports on the health impacts of methane. We do not know. We recommend start evaluating this point.