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About That Dimock Fracking Study: Result Summaries Show Methane and Hazardous Chemicals

Natural gas wells owned by Cabot Oil and Gas in Dimock, Pennsylvania, in December 2009. Environmental concern about hydraulic fracturing is creating political obstacles for gas drilling companies. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times)Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 3 issued a statement last week that its preliminary tests of water samples near drilling and fracking sites in the Pennsylvania town of Dimock showed no health concerns, the group Water Defense and “Gasland” director Josh Fox went to Dimock to look at the EPA summaries themselves, which they say do report high levels of explosive methane, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. The issue is raising renewed controversy over the increasing growth of unconventional gas drilling and fracking and the uncertainty around health and safety regulations.

Part of the Series

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 3 issued a statement last week that its preliminary tests of water samples near drilling and fracking sites in the Pennsylvania town of Dimock showed no health concerns, the group Water Defense and “Gasland” director Josh Fox went to Dimock to look at the EPA summaries themselves, which they say do report high levels of explosive methane, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. The issue is raising renewed controversy over the increasing growth of unconventional gas drilling and fracking and the uncertainty around health and safety regulations.

By the 2000s, it was starting to look like the reign of coal in providing over half of US electricity was ending. Community opposition and changing economic conditions turned the tide on most of the over 150 new coal plants proposed by the George W. Bush administration. And the EPA was being pressured to implement or update a suite of overdue coal regulations, including coal waste, mercury, water pollution and greenhouse gases, among others, making coal less commercially competitive compared to other energy alternatives.

While some looked hopefully to renewable energy to fill in the gap, industry developments in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were ushering in what appeared to be a new era for “unconventional” natural gas. Suddenly, the race was on for shale gas and oil deep underground. Homeowners and cities across the US agreed to drilling leases on their land, spurred on by the promise of low impact and high royalties. Plus, gas releases fewer pollutants when burned than coal, including about half the carbon dioxide emissions, making it easy to portray as the ideal bridge to a clean energy future.

Although the deep drilling process was in many ways new – particularly the cocktail of chemicals, sand and water used to break up the shale and release the gas in what has become known as “fracking” – gas drillers received exemptions from seven federal regulations that apply to other industries, including the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Superfund law; and, most notoriously, the Safe Drinking Water Act, due to the “Halliburton loophole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. Regulation and oversight were largely left to individual states, many of which were already overburdened, underfunded and under staffed.

By 2009, there were more than 493,000 active natural gas wells across 32 states in the US, almost double the number in 1990. And around 90 percent have used fracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.

And then the risks began to come to light. Some people living near drilling sites started talking about changes to their water and various health ailments. A 2009 ProPublica report concluded that “Pennsylvania was largely unprepared for the vast quantities of salty, chemically tainted wastewater produced by drilling operations in the Marcellus [Shale].” A New York Times review of internal EPA and industry documents concluded that more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced by Pennsylvania wells from 2008 to 2011 and “most was sent to treatment plants not equipped to remove many of the toxic materials in drilling waste.” Ohio was reinjecting drilling wastewater back into the ground, much of it from Pennsylvania, which was later linked to a series of small earthquakes in the previously non-seismically active area of Youngstown. The 2010 documentary “Gasland” featured the now iconic scene of a resident near a drilling site lighting his tap water on fire, with director Josh Fox later saying, “What if that had caused a larger fire – how would you put it out?” The state of New York successfully pushed that year for a temporary moratorium on fracking. High levels of ozone near drilling sites were found in Utah and Wyoming. In 2011, the EPA released raw data indicating groundwater supplies in Pavillion, Wyoming contained high-levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing. That same year, the EPA also released a new greenhouse gas report on natural gas that doubled its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, particularly from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas, while The New York Times later raised questions about the amount of shale gas reserves.

Meanwhile, an EPA investigation is underway in the Pennsylvania town of Dimock. In 2009, after investigating an explosion at a water well, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) determined that Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation was allowing methane and other contaminants to seep into nearby groundwater. Affected residents filed a lawsuit. Under pressure, EPA Region 3 intervened to conduct studies of water in the area. After receiving the preliminary results of 11 of the 61 planned water samples, the EPA announced on March 15, 2012, that the results “did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern.” The agency did say it will perform additional sampling at two homes where arsenic was detected. Regardless, most media stories ran with headlines such as BusinessWeek’s “EPA Clears Water in Pennsylvania Fracking Town After Complaints.”

Critics cried foul, wondering why the EPA was issuing a statement before the full testing was completed and called for public release of the samples. They also wondered if the statement was made about eleven samples to make it appear that the samples were from the eleven households involved in the lawsuit against Cabot.

In response, Water Defense and “Gasland” director Fox went to Dimock to personally collect the EPA test summaries from six of the eleven families and had the samples reviewed by independent experts. They found that the summaries actually did report explosive levels of methane, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals. According to Water Defense, all six of the results contained at least one serious health concern, either from chemicals present or methane levels. In four of the six summaries, methane levels exceeded the 7 mg/l actionable threshold necessary for mitigation under Pennsylvania law, the standard they say was previously cited by former state DEP Commissioner John Hanger. One of the test results showed methane levels at seven times that limit. The results also showed dozens of other contaminants, according to the organization, including heavy metals and chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, although safe levels have not been established for a majority of these chemicals. Water Defense has called for the complete test results to be released by the EPA for further analysis, citing inconsistencies in the available data.

Truthout talked with Water Defense Executive Director Claire Sandberg about the ongoing Dimock controversy and the work of Water Defense in the area.

Christine Shearer: Would you tell people a bit about Water Defense and how and why you formed?

Claire Sandberg: I’ve been working on this issue for a years now with [actor] Mark [Ruffalo] and I am a co-founder of Frack Action as well and Mark has been part of Frack Action since the beginning, which was really central to our victory in getting New York’s [2010] moratorium bill [on fracking] passed, but we realized that we can’t win in New York state no matter how many towns pass local bans and no matter how many headlines [about drilling and fracking] week after week – we still can’t win in our own backyards unless we shift some of the assumptions about this issue in the broader conversation. When we have a president that is out promoting [natural gas] as an economic and energy panacea and suggesting that we invest billions of dollars in new infrastructure to invest in natural gas, we are ultimately not going to be successful in our campaign to stop fracking unless we respond meaningfully to those broader issues of national energy policy.

Christine Shearer: One of the issues that has been raised around drilling has been methane leakage, but many companies have argued that the methane is not due to unconventional drilling, which they say occurs too far down to leak to the surface. What does Water Defense say to this argument?

Claire Sandberg: The industry likes to state that their number one safety precaution is thousands of layers of impermeable rock and that essentially there is no possible way for the methane to get into the ground water. And we know that the available science conclusively debunks that. The only peer-reviewed study that has been done on groundwater contamination from fracking has found that it occurs a majority of the time, so there is something really wrong here if methane is getting into the groundwater a majority of the time, often at explosive levels of methane.

At the same time, the industry does have a point that a lot of the contamination is not from the actual fracking itself – the process where you are injecting chemicals deep into the ground. A lot of the contamination is just from drilling and I think a lot of people are discovering – and this is part of our message with Water Defense – that the risks to water and health are just endemic to drilling and to fossil fuels and it is not specific to fracking. In general, this is the way these companies operate; it is how they have operated around the world, it’s “pump and dump.” The difference now is that, for the first time, the impacts of fuel extraction are literally in millions of Americans’ backyards. And increasingly, it is extreme fossil fuels, more devastating kinds of extraction as we run out of the easier-to-access sources of fossil fuels, but ultimately these problems are inherent to fossil fuels. We need to move to a renewable energy economy.

Christine Shearer: In 2009, Pennsylvania state regulators detected methane and benzene in Dimock, Pennsylvania, which they determined was leaking from Cabot Oil and Gas pipelines. Is that what led to the current EPA investigation of water in the area?

Claire Sandberg: The Pennsylvania DEP had investigated claims for a number of years on potential contamination related to fracking and there is a lawsuit ongoing [against Cabot]. And under the previous administration of Ed Rendell, the DEP found Cabot’s activities to be at fault for contamination and the DEP was going to force Cabot to pay for construction of a water pipeline to provide replacement water for eleven families on Carter Road in Dimock. Then, when Tom Corbett got into office – who received more than $1 million from the gas industry during his campaign – the plans for the water pipeline were scrapped. And then a few months later, this past fall, the DEP said Cabot no longer had to provide water delivery, which the families had been getting for several years. So, in the fall, Dimock residents came up to New York to talk about fracking and were facing the threat of not having clean water, so Water Defense started organizing water deliveries [to Dimock] and calling on the EPA to intervene. And as a result of the pressure, the EPA did step in and say they were going to provide water delivery for the families and also do water testing throughout the whole town. So it was really a result of the pressure that EPA became involved.

Christine Shearer: Cabot stopped delivering water to affected Dimock residents in December 2011 and then the EPA said it would start delivering water to the residents in January 2012, but then reversed its decision? Where are those residents getting their water right now?

Claire Sandberg: The EPA is still delivering water for families and they basically said they will do water testing and we have been pushing for water for another seven families that need water deliveries. We’ve been doing the water deliveries – Water Defense and a number of other groups have been working to maintain deliveries to the other families. We have been waiting this whole time for the EPA to come back with its test results, which is why it was such a big deal when it came out with a statement saying the water is safe and why it’s so important to look at the actual summaries. And we have not actually seen technical results at this point, they have not released those publicly, so that is one of our demands, that they release those test results.

Christine Shearer: Yes, after testing 11 of the planned 61 household water samples in Dimock, the EPA issued a statement on March 15, 2012, saying the results “did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern,” but that it will perform additional sampling at two homes where arsenic was detected. Water Defense has criticized the EPA statement. Would you tell us why?

Claire Sandberg: A host of reasons. First, we would expect the EPA not to editorialize on the results and just to release the data to the public, as they did in Wyoming. Second, how is the EPA establishing its standard of safety here? We know that there is no established safe limit for methane in drinking water and also no safe limit for many of the other compounds that have been found in the Dimock water that are associated with gas drilling – they’re common additives used in the fracking process. So, those are some immediate concerns.

Christine Shearer: So could the EPA find potential contaminants, but then report that they are not at levels above “safe” or “permissible” limits, because such limits do not actually exist?

Claire Sandberg: They’re saying because there is no established standard for safety, then it means that the water they tested is safe and that is just absurd. Just because there is no established safe limits for some of these compounds, that does not mean you should be drinking these chemicals. Not only that, but looking at the test results, there have been some glaring inconsistencies: varying detection levels and trigger levels for the same compounds of different peoples’ results. So, for detection levels, the way that that would work is if, for example, the minimum number of people on this phone call right now for it to be “detected” is five, then no one is on this phone call, because there are only two of us. So, some of the detection levels that EPA has used, according to the scientists that we gave [Dimock] results to, were found to be inadequate and they were also concerned about the differences from one test to another in both the detection standards that were used and the trigger levels of safety. So why on one would it say that the maximum contaminants for this test is, for example, 50 parts per million and on another it’s, say, 62 parts per million? Why the inconsistency? It doesn’t make sense.

Christine Shearer: What does account for the inconsistency? Because there are no standardized state or federal levels?

Claire Sandberg: I don’t know at this point, which is why we are asking to see the actual test results.

Christine Shearer: To clarify, what is the current “safe” level for methane in drinking water?

Claire Sandberg: There is actually no established safe limit for methane in drinking water. So that is one reason, right off the bat, why it is spurious for the EPA to claim that the water is safe to drink.

Christine Shearer: ProPublica just released an article today (March 20) saying that, despite all the media stories saying the EPA tests showed the Dimock samples to be “safe,” that actually the EPA’s Dimock water samples were found to contain potentially dangerous quantities of methane gas and other contaminants.

Claire Sandberg: Yes, so that is just based on the preliminary review of the [EPA] test result summaries that were provided to the families, which do contain some of those inconsistencies. But already, even with those inconsistencies and uncertainties and the fact that certain chemicals that are very important to test for were not even included in the results – for example, some of the radioactive compounds that were tested for and are pretty important to test for, we have actually not received those results back yet, so why is the EPA making statements about the safety of this water when not all the test results are even back yet, particularly very important tests about the radioactivity of the water?

Christine Shearer: So, Water Defense was part of getting those test result summaries from the families?

Claire Sandberg: We and [“Gasland” director] Josh Fox went to Dimock on Friday [March 16] and got the summaries directly from the residents because the EPA would not release them. So the ProPublica story is based on the summaries that were provided to the residents. So another concern here about just the way that the EPA released this is that it poses serious questions about whether the EPA intended to mislead the public or intended for the story to be spun in this way, making the water seem safe.

Christine Shearer: Is there also the concern that the EPA might not be able to detect all possible contaminants in water near drilling sites, because companies do not have to disclose all the chemicals they use in the fracking process?

Claire Sandberg: The concern with the lack of disclosure is more about being able to link the chemicals to the drilling. For example, some of the chemicals commonly used in the fracking process are used in, for example, agricultural applications or are common in pesticides that could be sprayed on the surface of a drilling pad or even injected into the ground. So we think a big reason the industry does not want to disclose its chemicals is to make it as difficult as possible for people to fingerprint the chemicals and say, “Yes, this chemical in my drinking water came from that gas well.” It’s very hard to do that unless you know what they are injecting in the ground in that gas well.

Christine Shearer: The EPA did release their well sampling work plan for Dimock?

Claire Sandberg: Yes, the EPA did release their work plan going over the timeline for the water sampling in relationship to the data.

Christine Shearer: But Water Defense wants the actual test results?

Claire Sandberg: Yes, which we think should not be trickled out in this manner with preliminary data coming in and the EPA editorializing what it means using inconsistent standards. It should be released once the totality of data has been collected. And, right now, we are calling for the actual test results from the water wells from these families whose results have been described by the EPA, but not publicly released.

Christine Shearer: Having worked on drilling and water issues across different states, do you find many discrepancies in how different regions and agencies handle similar issues? For example, for your statement on the EPA study in Dimock, you noted that when similar contamination was reported in Pavillion, Wyoming, EPA Region 8 there refused to release any results until full testing was completed, and that EPA region 3 that covers Pennsylvania seems to have more lax standards for responding to methane in water than Texas. Does Pennsylvania or EPA region 3 stand out as being more reluctant to impose or enforce regulations regarding the oil/gas industry?

Claire Sandberg: For Texas, that regional office, the difference in the way they handled that case, where they ordered Range Resources to provide replacement water to some families in north Texas, they actually did not see the methane leakage as a drinking water issue; they saw it as an explosion issue and just on the basis of explosion and the safety hazards that the methane in the water posed, they ordered Range to provide replacement water. So, that is the precedent.

Christine Shearer: In Dimock, is their water explosive?

Claire Sandberg: Some of them. Methane content in water can actually change seasonally and that is actually one factor that is not being taken into account. We’re also not sure at this point whether or not the water was tested before or after it was vented. So, most of the residents in Dimock have vents on their water wells to release the methane. So, it could be explosive before it was tested, and after a lot of the methane vented off, it may be slightly less than explosive.

Christine Shearer: Was that put there after the unconventional drilling began – the vents?

Claire Sandberg: Yes. The first person in Dimock to discover that there were problems with the water was Norma Fiorentino, whose water well exploded. And it took a little while and, for a certain period of time, some of the residents were still showering in the water and drinking the water and were experiencing a lot of the health impacts and dizziness and skin lesions. And, of course, the long-term effects aren’t known. But, over time, they started to realize that the water is not safe to use.

I think, right now, they feel that the dialogue on Dimock is not just about them and not just about Dimock, that this is really an indictment on this entire industry and the safety of this practice. And they want to make sure that their health is put before politics and other people don’t have to go through this. And I think there are some serious questions about the refusal to hold Cabot accountable, because it is not just Dimock; it is not just the families on Carter Road who are going through this. There is an escalating water crisis in Pennsylvania. More and more people are coming forward and talking about being able to light their water on fire or their water turning black, making them sick. In Franklin Township, which is not too far from Dimock, there is one household that has higher concentrations of methane near their water than many of us have ever heard of, where there is actually a geyser of methane that erupts like Old Faithful out of the water well a couple times a day.

Christine Shearer: What are the next steps for the Dimock study? For Water Defense?

Claire Sandberg: We don’t want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory here. Whatever the spin, the test results show that the water was contaminated and contaminated with thermogenic methane from the shale and that is what we have been fighting for all of this time. To find out the truth. And the EPA has confirmed it. And we have heard it many times, from independent testing, from the Pennsylvania DEP, and we want to take this and run with it. And we will also be working to shed light on the escalating water crisis across the state of Pennsylvania, which we think is a national disgrace. And starting next week, we will be talking about these issues and telling some of the personal stories from people in Pennsylvania whose lives are being totally disorganized and communities being upended by this and talk about it in the context of overall national energy policy and the fact that we have a president who has become the biggest champion of natural gas next to T. Boone Pickens. So, we’ll be launching our campaign, “Natural Gas Exposed,” next Wednesday on the Colbert Report with Mark Ruffalo going on. But, certainly, there are some deep challenges when you have elected leaders on both sides of the aisle championing natural gas as a “miracle fuel” or panacea. But we have the truth on our side: we know that staking our future on natural gas means running our economy on the destruction of the American Dream and on the suffering of people across this country and we think it’s time to shine a light on that and push for a real renewable energy policy.