Duke Study Shows Fracking Contaminates Drinking Water

by Dee Fulton on May 10, 2011

Flammable tap water.  You’ve seen it on Gasland.  You can find several YouTube videos of this event on the net.  Now the research has caught up with the reality.  Duke University studied water quality in the vicinity of hydraulic fracturing and produced incontrovertible evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water wells with methane gas. The study published Monday found potentially dangerous concentrations of methane gas in water from wells near drilling sites in northeastern Pennsylvania, although not in central New York, where gas drilling is less extensive. But in an unexpected finding, the team of Duke University scientists did not find any trace of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process in 68 wells tested in Pennsylvania and Otsego County in central New York. In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, water, sand and chemicals are injected underground to crack the rock and get natural gas to flow into a well. Critics of the technique have worried more about the chemicals since companies have refused to make public the proprietary blends used, and many of the ingredients can be toxic.

On average, water from wells located less than a mile from drilling sites had 17 times more methane than water tested from wells farther away, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Methane is not known to be toxic, but in high concentrations it can be explosive and cause unconsciousness and even death, since it displaces oxygen needed to breathe. Of the 60 wells tested for methane gas, 14 had levels of methane within or above a hazard range set by the Department of Interior for gas seeping from coal mines — all but one of them near a gas well. In nine wells, concentrations were so high that the government would recommend immediate action to reduce the methane level. Methane is released naturally by bacteria as they break down organic matter. The researchers’ analysis shows that the type of methane in the wells with the highest concentrations is coming from deep in the earth, the same place tapped by companies in search of natural gas.

In the most severe case, a homeowner in Bradford County, Pa. who leased her property to a gas company has so much methane coming out of her tap she can light her water on fire. A natural gas well is located 800 feet from her house.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

RD Blakeslee May 11, 2011 at 8:52 am

The study shows no such thing as your sensationalist headline trumpets!

In the first place, there was no baseline metahane level established, whereby a comparison could be made of gas levels in wells before drilling and after. We have a water well on our place which is contaminated with methane but there’s been no drilling for gas within miles, ever. Gas has apparently perked up naturally.

Second, there has been no connection whatever established to fracking per se. To the contrary, the study looked for, but DID NOT FIND any fliuds associated with fracking. Leakage (if any) was probably around the well bore seal and had nothing to do with fracking a mile or more down.

Your website touts “responsible” gas well drilling. Maybe you should pay a little more attention to responsible reporting, as well.


Dee Fulton May 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm

This is the same argument that the natural gas industry has successfully employed in several cases of well water contamination. The unsuspecting homeowner, assured that there is no possibility of contamination, doesn’t spend his/her money on a water test before drilling. The when the water goes all fizzy and firey, oops! No case to establish that it wasn’t that way to begin with. But the Duke study is a broad-based study. Look at the results again. “On average, water from wells located less than a mile from drilling sites had 17 times more methane than water tested from wells farther away, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” And the respectable National Academy of Sciences published this. Seventeen more times! That is more than enough to be scientifically significant. I do not disagree that the gas most likely leaked from well casings, and the post covers that no fracking chemicals were found in the samples. The fact is that methane is getting into the drinking water. It’s not OK by me that people are being exposed to risk of explosion in their homes and that their homes are devalued because they must depend on water buffalos and water delivery ad infinitum. What this demonstrates is that current industry techniques are not safe and that people are being endangered; profit is trumping health and safety.


RD Blakeslee May 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Ms. Fulton, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that ground water is ever more contaminated, everywhere below high mountain peaks, for all kinds of reasons, which will inevitably get worse.

When we discovered our well water was contaminated (over a third of a century ago!) we installed a cistern and now use water from our roof.

Did you know that the atmosphere is quite a good filter and that locally introduced orgabnic contaminants (from bugs, leaves, etc.) are rather easily removed?

For heaven’s sake, don”t rely on either ground water or “water buffalos or water delivery”. Did you know that there are no accepted standards for bottled water and no systematic inspection of it?


Chris Salmon May 13, 2011 at 4:58 am

This whole thing really makes me sad. No one feels any obligation to be anywhere close to honest. To me, it’s so much easier to be honest and to make statements that align with what is really there. Why can’t you just be honest? How does honesty hurt your cause?

“Duke Study Shows Fracking Contaminates Drinking Water”

No it doesn’t. The study doesn’t say that. That is a falsehood.

“Duke University studied water quality in the vicinity of hydraulic fracturing and produced incontrovertible evidence that fracking contaminates drinking water wells with methane gas.”

No they didn’t. The study doesn’t say that, either. This is another falsehood.

Could you please show where the study says these things? In your comment above, you act like you think that just because, within the 68 sample dataset collected, the study found more natural gas in water wells closer to a natural gas field than those further away, that this, somehow, is the same thing as what your headline says. Where in the heck do you get such a notion? Those aren’t even close to being the same thing!

Now, in fact the paper actually acknowledges that they were unable to draw conclusions as to why the 68 samples had the concentrations they found. They state that unequivocally:

“More research is needed across this and other regions
to determine the mechanism(s) controlling the higher methane
concentrations we observed.”

Don’t you understand that means they aren’t trying to make the claims you are making? You are saying things about the study that the authors themselves did not say and aren’t willing to say. That’s just plain dishonest. Why not just be truthful and say what the study actually says?


Chris Salmon May 13, 2011 at 5:08 am
Dee Fulton May 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm

In response to Mr. Salmon’s comments, it is very important to note that the chemical signature in the water from wells proximate to drilling sites with elevated methane levels was of the thermogenic variety, not biogenic. This means that the methane originated from the deep shale formations. This is different from biogenic or mixed biogenic/thermogenic methane contamination that is naturally occurring. This point is made in the introductory paragraph of the report in bold. To reference the text of the report, please click on the link in the post “the research”.
Also in the intro of the report, “In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsyl- vania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction.” I believe the title of the post is consistent with this statement.
Finally, the report contains 3 hypotheses to explain why the methane was in the water. The first, identified as unlikely, is the displacement of gas-rich solutions from the target formation. “A second mechanism is leaky gas-well casings (e.g., refs. 27 and 28). Such leaks could occur at hundreds of meters underground, with methane passing laterally and vertically through fracture systems. The third mechanism is that the process of hydraulic fracturing generates new fractures or enlarges existing ones above the target shale formation, increasing the connectivity of the fracture system.”
Certainly more research is needed to determine which mechanism is creating the problem.


RD Blakeslee May 14, 2011 at 8:53 am

I second Chris Salmon’s observation re Frack Check’s slanting its coverage. And Ms.Fulton’s point that more needs to be known about the way gas leaks parallel to well bores.

But more needs to be known about how to deal with the inevitable increase in contamination everywhere and from nyriad sources, not just gas wells. For example, we have for a long time now treated the water supplied to urban areas, knowing it is unsafe for human consumption in its original condition. My solution here in the country has been simple micro-filtration and distillation of rainwater off my roof.


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