New research is providing some of the first scientific evidence that a controversial gas drilling technique can contaminate drinking water. The study published last month found potentially dangerous concentrations of methane gas in water from wells near drilling sites in northeastern Pennsylvania. In central New York, where gas drilling is less extensive, there was no problem found. But in what was apparently 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 are concerned more about the chemicals since companies have refused to make public the proprietary blends used and some 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 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. What the study does not say is how exactly the methane is getting into drinking water sources, and what part of the drilling is potentially involved. While wells closer to drilling sites had more methane, most of the wells in the study — 85 percent — had some.
Two federal agencies have launched their own studies. The State of Pennsylvania – where numerous homeowners are suing drilling companies over water contamination – views methane as among the most serious risks of gas drilling. In that state, an investigation into an explosion and fire at a house in December, and another at a home in February, is looking at natural gas drilling as the culprit. A natural gas drilling company last year agreed to pay $4.1 million to 19 homeowners whose water was contaminated by methane gas, even though the company denies causing the pollution.
Source: Associated Press
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