Fracking's short, dirty story

Developed decades ago, hydraulic fracturing involves the process of breaking up heavy oil- and gas-bearing shale formations by pumping millions of gallons of chemically tainted water through vertical and lateral wells at intense pressure. Only in recent years has the practice become cost effective for industry, as advances in technology have been matched by rising energy prices. In South Texas, operators are increasingly honing in on the Eagle Ford shale formation, which stretches from several counties to the northeast of San Antonio all the way to Maverick County on the U.S.-Mexico border. Here is a short list of fracking-related troubles that have arisen across the country in recent years.

Colorado — A three-year study in Garfield County detailed the migration of methane from fracking operations through natural faults into potable water supplies, but state regulators also fingered faulty casing work by EnCana Oil and Gas for water well contamination, fining the company $370,000.

Pennsylvania — In a land of exploding water wells and quarantined cows, residents of Dimock, Pa., sued Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas in 2009 after a range of chemicals linked to fracking contaminated water wells. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection fined the company more than $240,000. However, the price tag associated with trucking in clean water to homeowners has been placed at more than $10 million.

Wyoming — In September 2010, the EPA discovered water wells in Wyoming were contaminated with 2-butoexythanol phosphate, a common fracking fluid with a range of harmful human-health impacts, and instructed community residents not to drink their water. Indian Country Today reported residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation began using fans while bathing to reduce the risk of explosion. Meanwhile, lawmakers passed rules forcing oil and gas companies in the state to divulge the full list of chemicals used in fracking operations. In an echo of BP’s tussle with the Feds over the makeup of the dispersant Corexit, industry has argued to the EPA that such information must be kept secret as competitive trade information.

New York — Following warnings that contaminated aquifers requiring the construction of industrial treatment plants would raise New York City water rates by a minimum of 30 percent, New York Governor David Paterson issued a statewide seven-month moratorium on “high-volume” fracking in December of 2010.

North Texas — Jay Olaguer, director of air-quality research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, reported last summer that industry is regularly underestimating air emissions from fracking and natural-gas development in the DFW area. He reported that formaldehyde readings in one industry study — which reached 126 parts per billion at one DFW location — were “astoundingly high.” “I’ve never heard of ambient `formaldehyde` concentrations that high,” he told the Current, “except in Brazil where they use alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasohol for automobiles.” Beyond immediate public-health impacts associated with breathing formaldehyde, the chemical is also a powerful precursor to the creation of ground-level ozone.

Click here for our related story on gas fracking lowering water tables in South Texas

Nationwide — A wide-ranging EPA study was launched last year after the agency acknowledged “there are serious concerns from citizens and their representatives about hydraulic fracturing’s potential impact on drinking water, human health, and the environment.” Initial findings on the feasibility of fracking are expected to be released in late 2012.

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