the cautious approach

April 18, 2014


Mist on the mountains in unfractured Garrett County.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Maryland agencies that ignore studies linking fracking to explosive methane levels in water wells are on a par with climate-change deniers.

That’s according to a Duke University scientist who urged state regulators to take a “cautious” approach and protect people living near fracking wells with 1-kilometer buffers.

In their most recent updates to draft best practices, though, the agencies have not incorporated that safety zone.

Avner Vengosh, speaking this week via a Web hookup to members of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state regulators, explained and defended his research that shows that some water wells within a kilometer of fracking operations have dangerously high levels of explosive and flammable methane, propane and ethane. This fugitive gas contamination is unlike the trace amounts of methane found in most water wells outside the 1-kilometer (3,280 feet) radius. The stray gas contains ethane and propane, he said, and has a heavier isotopic fingerprint. He said it comes from leaking annuli or faulty casings around the drill, a persistent problem industry has long documented. Homes near these wells have had to find other sources of water, and even the suspicion of contamination has devalued homes, he said. The gas migration also indicates a pathway for future toxic contamination, said Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality.

best image of leaky casing

This industry diagram shows methane’s path through a leaky casing to the aquifer.

The Duke research is ongoing and the next study, in the review stage but soon to be published, he described as a “slam dunk.” The Duke scientists have published several studies about methane migration, each incorporating more well samples from northeast Pennsylvania. They also have studied the inadequate treatment and disposal of the radioactive and briny wastewater and surface contamination from leaks and spills.

Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the shale advisory commission, told Vengosh that state agencies, echoing the industry position, had rejected the 1-kilometer setback. They had determined that the Duke study, because it lacked baseline levels, failed to show conclusively that drilling had caused the methane contamination.

Vengosh said he found that “kind of insulting.” He compared that stance to climate change deniers. “So, if shale gas is totally safe … if that is what this commission believes, I would suggest that the commission have no setbacks at all. Why is 1,000 feet good and 3,000 bad? … If you believe in something or not is irrelevant,” he said. The data show “3,000 feet would be more protective.”

He labeled the recent clamor for baseline studies “a clever way” to question the environmental science and suggested it was driven by lawyers trying to defend industry in contamination lawsuits. The water wells outside the drilling areas indicate the background levels, he said. He collects baseline levels when possible, but he said scientists should not be held “hostage” to pressure for a baseline to determine stray gas or other contamination. No one asks for baseline comparisons on, for example, wastewater, sewage or road salt contamination, Vengosh said.

He also cautioned that research is just beginning and ”our knowledge is very limited,” which puts state regulators in the position of having to weigh industry-funded studies against academic studies. “If I were in your position, I would try to be as cautious as possible,” he said.

Commission Chairman David Vanko asked Vengosh whether the research showed a correlation between the contaminated water wells and whether the water source was up- or down-gradient from the gas well. (Up-gradient is the below-ground version of upwind or upstream.) But Vengosh said the Duke scientists had not detected “any patterns” on that. Gas, he said, flows vertically — up the channel created by the well.

At the meeting, state regulators outlined several setback revisions for the draft Best Management Practices. But they weren’t buying the 1-kilometer setback.

The standard setback for private wells would be 2,000 feet, up from 1,000 feet —but could be reduced to 1,000 feet if the driller showed, through a hydrological study, that the well pad was not up-gradient from the underground water source. Also, the setback from streams, rivers, seeps, springs, wetlands, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and 100-year floodplains would be 450 feet, up from 300 feet. Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning for the Department of Natural Resources, said the proposed setbacks are designed to reduce the risk of contamination from surface spills.

“The state is making a huge mistake,” said Roberts, who had long pressed for regulators to have a presentation from one of the Duke scientists. The 1,000-foot buffer, in particular, is based on regulations from the early 1990s before fracking in unconventional shales had begun, he said. The setbacks are “not protective in any way” and indicate state agencies’ refusal to accept the Duke findings, Roberts said.

“I object to that characterization,” Conn said. She said the agencies accept the study but disagree that the setback would be the “appropriate practice” to prevent methane contamination.

In a letter opposing a bill setting a minimum 1-kilometer distance between gas wells and drinking wells, however, the state Department of the Environment said its rationale was that “none of the published articles has shown a causal relationship between the gas wells and the measured [methane] concentrations.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited also endorsed larger buffers between drinking water and gas wells. “If you have this lack of data, then the precautionary principle or approach should be to embrace a broader protection area,” he said.

Commissioner Ann Bristow of the Savage River Watershed Association said the agencies should consider increasing the proposed 1,000-foot setback from occupied structures, such as homes and schools. Recent studies show air pollution could pose even greater harm than water contamination, she said. A 2012 study showed health risks significantly greater for residents living up to a half-mile (2,640 feet) from wells. And two studies have found fracking is bad for babies: A study in progress has found evidence of lower birth weights within 3.5 kilometers (11,482 feet) of a wellhead. A study not yet published but presented at the American Economic Association also found low birth weights and other health problems in babies born within 2.5 kilometers of fracking sites.

According to the commission’s timeline, air pollution is on the agenda for the May 16 meeting.

–elisabeth hoffman

HB 865 Setback Graphic.2A

Citizen Shale modified an EPA graphic to illustrate for legislators how the 1-kilometer buffer would protect private water wells. House Bill 865, which would have mandated that setback, didn’t get out of committee.


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