May 16, 2011. Bradford County, PA. In a first of its kind study, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of testing on drinking water in areas of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. A team of Duke University biochemists tested for any dangers from the controversial mining technique known as ‘fracturing’. They found that drinking water located less than a mile from drilling sites was contaminated with Methane gas at levels 17 times higher than drinking water from further away.
Fracturing is a natural gas mining process in which water, sand and ‘top-secret’ chemicals are hydraulically blasted into the ground to ‘fracture’ the shale rock that encases the natural gas deposit. When the surrounding rock breaks and fractures, the gas escapes and is captured. Residents in surrounding areas however have complained that their water smells foul and in some instances, is so flammable it actually burns.
Until now, industry experts have assured skeptics that Methane evaporates quickly and most-likely wouldn’t pose a threat to near-by residents. The study’s results fly in the face of those assurances. The government recommends immediate action in cases where Methane levels test at a hazardous level between 10 and 28 milligrams of dissolved Methane per litre. In areas further away from mining sites, the average level was 1.1mg per litre of drinking water. In areas 1 kilometer or closer to the mining sites, the drinking water tested an average of 19.2mg per litre.
Methane is not known to be toxic. But at higher levels, it can cut off oxygen to the brain causing black-outs, unconsciousness and even death. In extreme cases, it can even be explosive. One resident of Bradford County, PA lives only 800 feet from a natural gas well and can literally light her drinking water on fire.
Another question that seemed to be answered was the accusation that waste water from the fracturing process was also contaminating the drinking water. Mining companies have so far refused to disclose the mixture of secret chemicals used in the mining application. They site proprietary secrets as their business reason for not releasing the information. The recent testing didn’t detect any of the industrial chemicals thought to be used in the fracturing process.
That fact would lend support to both sides of the argument. PR spokesmen for the mining industry immediately criticized the study by saying that the scientists provided no evidence that fracture-mining was responsible for the higher than normal levels of Methane in the drinking water. They also point out that the University team didn’t take any ‘before’ samples to compare the levels of Methane in the drinking water before the mining operations began.
While the study’s authors concede that both charges are true, they suggest that a closer look be taken at the effects of fracture-mining that might be leading to the higher levels of Methane. Some have suggested that while the mine encasing keeps the water cannon and its chemical payload within the mine shaft itself and not released into near-by water wells, the act of fracturing the surrounding rock may be causing additional and unseen near-by cracks that are opening escape paths allowing the Methane to rise into the water wells.
While the mining companies continue to argue that there is no evidence that they are responsible for the hazardous drinking water, environmental groups continue to demand that more be done to protect the unsuspecting families living all around these mines. While government standards demand action be taken to clean up the sites, mining companies have purchased more than their share of Congressional representation and Federal cooperation. The citizens of Pennsylvania will be eagerly waiting for action.