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Texas water contamination linked to fracking sites

High levels of pollution near US fracking sites point to the need for further research into shale gas extraction technology

Toxic substances such as arsenic, selenium and strontium have been discovered in water wells

By Sophie Yeo

A high level of water contamination has been discovered in the water wells near a natural gas extraction site in the US.

The toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium and strontium, were all found at levels higher than recommended levels in wells in and around the Barnett Shale, an important reservoir of natural gas in North Texas.

The study, led by Kevin Schug, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas (UT) at Arlington, took water samples from 100 private wells.

Of these, 91 were taken from wells that were within a five kilometre radius of a natural gas drilling site, while another nine were taken from “reference areas” of more than 14 kilometres from a drilling site.

The highest levels of contaminants were discovered within three kilometres of natural gas wells. While many of the heavy metals identified in the samples are naturally present in groundwater, the researchers found that they were present at levels higher than historical average.

“This study alone can’t conclusively identify the exact causes of elevated levels of contaminants in areas near natural gas drilling, but it does provide a powerful argument for continued research,” said Brian Fontenot, a UT Arlington graduate with a doctorate in quantitative biology and lead author on the new paper.

He added, “We expect this to be the first of multiple projects that will ultimately help the scientific community, the natural gas industry, and most importantly, the public, understand the effects of natural gas drilling on water quality.”

Arsenic, for instance, which occurs naturally in the region’s water, was detected in 99 out of 100 of the samples. However, the concentrations of arsenic was significantly higher in the samples taken from the areas near drilling sites, compared to non-extraction areas and historical data.

The highest concentration was 16 times the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) safety standard for drinking water, which creates risks of skin damage, circulation problems and cancer.

Political debate

The researchers accepted no outside funding to ensure the integrity of the study, which indicates just how controversial such research is.

Fracking, which has dramatically decreased the cost of natural gas in the US from $15 per million British thermal units at the end of 2005 to around $2.30 in 2012, is a highly political subject, with millions of pound of lobbying from energy companies influencing debate.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Exxon Mobil spent $19.6 million on lobbying in 18 months.

With exploratory drilling set to begin in West Sussex, these kinds of discoveries will heighten the concerns in the UK that have already caused protests in Balcombe this weekend, with 16 arrests taking place on Friday.

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  • danlxyz

    It seems like a simple solution would be to have the drilling company pay to have all water wells within 5 kilometers tested before the well is permitted and then regularly afterwords.

    • BLOB™

      No need, Dick Cheney put a provision in to give them immunity if they do contaminate an aquifer.

      In 2005, at the urging of Vice President Cheney, fracking fluids were exempted from the Clean Water Act after the companies that own the patents on the process raised concerns about disclosing proprietary formulas – if they had to meet the Act’s standards they would have to reveal the chemical composition which competitors could then steal. Fair enough, but this also exempts these companies from having to meet the strict regulations that protect the nation’s freshwater supply.

  • stub

    correlation is not causation.

    • kalizhada

      It’s going to take more than that to convince other people you have a legitimate rebuttal worth considering.

    • Tsu D’ Nym

      Wow! Someone did a first year science paper! Good on you….

    • Michael

      Perhaps correlation is not causation, but correlation is good enough reason to be concerned and to go through the proper investigative processes. The fundamental observation in most scientific research is correlation. The next step is to identify the reason for that correlation. No body has actually demonstrated that the correlation is not due to fracking.

  • kalizhada

    I ran for city council in San Antonio,Texas last Spring to bring this issue to light since none of the other candidates dared to bring this issue up. And they elected someone who’s agenda is comprised of side walks and bike trails as the primary concern for the community. That’s South Texas for you, yeeh haw!

    • D B


    • môoooo

      Good for you, we defenetly need people like you running our city’s and towns.corruption is what’s running the show right now.

  • Bruce Richardson

    What “link?” What were the concentrations in those water wells before the fracking? Apparently the author wasn’t interested in that little detail. Measure the concentrations in the local water wells before and after the fracking. Not just after… Water wells often have such contaminants from natural sources. Sometimes they have methane.

  • fluff

    Why do we all think about drilling for oil, gas, coal, when solar energy and geothermal should be the way to go. And we better do it now, climate change can kill millions in just a few years. Are we all really this stupid.