Since 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has gathered data on one of the most controversial aspects of the oil and natural gas boom in Ohio and other states. The issue, impressed on many people by the documentary Gasland and incidents such as the contamination of aquifers in 2007 in Bainbridge Township, Geauga County, is how the technique of hydraulic fracturing affects the nation’s drinking water supplies.
In a draft report released last week, the EPA did note a few specific instances of contamination, among them the Bainbridge incident. Still, the agency’s conclusion supports the contention of the industry that such drilling is generally safe. The EPA did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing has “led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources.”
That hardly amounts to a carte blanche for the industry. What the report makes plain is the massive scale of modern-day drilling, as many as 30,000 hydraulically fractured wells drilled each year, the activity affecting 25 states. Each well uses between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water mixed with sand and, in various combinations, more than 1,000 chemicals, about half with potential human health effects.
Under high pressure, the mixture fractures rock and releases valuable resources. At the same time, many areas of potential vulnerability exist. In drier areas, tapping water for drilling can affect drinking water supplies. Mixing drilling fluid can lead to spills; so can handling the wastewater that comes back up after fracking takes place. Poorly constructed well casings, designed to prevent leakage into aquifers, can fail.
There also is evidence of contaminants migrating into underground aquifers, although the EPA report characterizes the chances as “unlikely” in deep shale formations such as those in Ohio. In other parts of the country, hydraulic fracturing takes place in shallower formations or even layers where drinking water resources are at the same level.
For state policymakers such as those in Ohio, the report must be viewed as a prescription for frequent, detailed inspections and careful monitoring. Providing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources with adequate funding must be a high priority, the department in almost total control of drilling in the state.
Although the EPA did not find a pattern of drinking water contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, the potential effects of even a single large-scale spill could be devastating. Between 2000 and 2013, some 9.4 million people lived within one mile of a fracked well. Also within one mile of at least one fracked well were some 6,800 sources of public drinking water used by 8.6 million people.
Other effects from fracking were outside the scope of the report, such as those caused by injection wells, the primary means of disposing of wastewater from drilling. They have been linked to increases in earthquake activity. All of which argues for abundant care and caution to minimize the costs and secure the benefits brought by hydraulic fracturing.
This article was from The Akron Beacon Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.