For the first time, a government study has tied contamination in drinking water to an advanced drilling technique commonly known as "fracking."
The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft study Thursday tying the technique, formally called hydraulic fracturing, to high levels of chemicals found in ground water in the small town of Pavillion, Wyo. EPA scientists found high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and synthetic glycol and alcohol, commonly found in hydraulic fracturing fluid.
The gas industry and other experts have long contended that fracking doesn't contaminate drinking water. The EPA's findings provide the first official confirmation to the contrary.
In hydraulic fracturing, companies inject chemicals deep underground at high pressure to blast fractures in formations to make the gas flow faster.
Fracking has helped spawn a gas boom across the country, which President Obama supports as a key to the country's energy security. But many experts have raised concerns about a wide range of environmental risks.
In many areas across the country, people who live near gas production have complained that their wells have been contaminated.
People in Pavillion, located on the Wind River Indian Reservation, contacted the EPA three years ago, complaining that their water smelled and tasted bad.
The agency started sampling drinking water wells in 2009 and found low levels of methane and other hydrocarbons in most of those wells. Although the levels did not exceed drinking water standards in most cases, the agency recommended that people get other sources of water for drinking and cooking, Encana, the company which drilled the wells, started providing water. The company says it provides drinking water to 21 households at a cost of about $1,500 per month.
The agency was concerned that higher concentrations of some of the chemicals might be lurking elsewhere in the aquifer.
So EPA researchers drilled two wells and found lots of chemicals, which could be tied to drilling. For example, they found levels of benzene, which is known to cause cancer and other health effects, far higher than safe drinking water standards. The presence of other chemicals — like synthetic glycols and alcohols — persuaded them that the contamination was likely coming from fracking.
"Alternative explanations were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing," the EPA reports says.
The EPA has yet to find those synthetic chemicals or benzene in private or public drinking wells. However, an EPA scientist said that the agency doesn't know how contaminants might move in the aquifer, so it's concerned about what will happen to the drinking water wells over time.
"EPA's highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water," said Jim Martin, EPA's regional administrator in Denver.
A spokesman for Encana called the EPA study "speculation."
As for the benzene, methane and other hydrocarbons, Encana spokesman Doug Hock said: "We didn't put those compounds there, nature did."
He contends that the agency's wells were drilled in the wrong spots, into a gas-rich area instead of water. Hock also says it's possible that the EPA might have created the contamination when drilling.
The EPA says it carefully monitored its own drilling to ensure it was not responsible for any of the contamination.
Nonetheless, the EPA agrees with the company and state officials that further investigation is warranted.
The EPA's study will be scrutinized by other scientists for 30 days and the agency will accept public comment for 45 days.
EPA stresses that the geology under Pavillion is very different than in other natural gas formations across the country. So the results of the Pavillion study do not necessarily apply to other areas. The hydraulic fracturing near Pavillion happened much closer to the surface and to drinking water sources than in many other areas.
Still, the EPA is investigating what risks hydraulic fracturing might pose in other regions. The agency recently launched a nationwide study of fracking's potential impact on drinking water.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency reinforced what many residents of Pavilion, Wyoming have long suspected. Chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, seem to be leaching into their groundwater. Fracking is a method used to extract natural gas and it's very common in the area around Pavilion. For years now, the residents have complained that their water smells bad and that pollutants in the water are harming their health.
Previous test by the EPA have found chemicals in the water, but the draft report released today is the first to establish an official link between the contamination and fracking. The gas industry has long denied any responsibility.
And for more on this story, I'm joined now by NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. And first, tell us more about what the report found.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Well, for three years the EPA has been studying this area, which is a town in the Wind River Indian Reservation. And it drilled its own wells into the aquifer to see what was going on down there. They found lots of chemicals that shouldn't be there; things like benzene and glycols and alcohol.
SIEGEL: How did they establish a link between the chemicals and fracking, specifically?
SHOGREN: Well, some of these chemicals like the glycol and the alcohols don't occur there naturally. But they are found in the cocktail of chemicals that the industry injected underground to crack open this formation and help the gas be produced more quickly. So that's one of the ways they found out.
SIEGEL: Now, the EPA is careful to say that these findings are preliminary. Can they be applied to other places where fracking occurs?
SHOGREN: Well, what the scientists tell me is that this geological formation is very special, that the companies drill closer to the surface than they do in lots of other areas. And also, the drinking water there is closer to that area where they drill than it is in lots of other places. There are other parts of the country where there are shallow formations where they do use hydraulic fracturing. So it could apply elsewhere but it doesn't mean that this kind of problem is occurring everywhere.
In fact, what the experts tell me is that they don't have any cases before this where there was a contamination that was tied specifically to hydraulic fracturing.
SIEGEL: Did the natural gas industry respond to this draft report from the EPA today?
SHOGREN: Yes, the company that did this hydraulic fracturing was very upset with the report. They say that in fact it's just speculation and that EPA hasn't proven anything. They say that a lot of the chemicals could have been there by nature, or maybe EPA had introduced them its own drilling of the wells.
SIEGEL: So what happens? This is a draft report. What stands between it and becoming a final report?
SHOGREN: Well, the EPA will now put it out for review both by scientists and the public. If you have something to say, you can tell them what you think. And then after that we'll get a final report. And the EPA also is doing a much broader report of the impact of hydraulic fracturing and other gas development on drinking water across the country.
SIEGEL: Just to put this in context, fracking is a high priority for the natural gas industry. This is something very important to them.
SHOGREN: Well, it's not just a high priority to the natural gas industry. It's a high priority to President Obama. There is a gas boom going on across the country and gas prices are coming down. And in lots of ways, natural gas is a lot cleaner than the other sources of electricity that we use now, like coal. And so, there is a lot of tension in this and there's also a lot of interest in what's happening here.
SIEGEL: Okay. Well, thanks for talking with us about it.
That's NPR environmental correspondent Elizabeth Shogren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.