EPA Claim Fracking Caused Wy. Water Contamination

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Dec. 8, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that chemicals found in Wyoming drinking water were likely associated with hydraulic fracturing in natural gas wells in the area, raising tensions in an ongoing debate over the drilling practice.

The agency, responding to complaints from residents in Pavillion, Wyo., drilled a pair of deep wells in the area and identified the chemicals in groundwater.

Encana, which owns the gas field around Pavillion, said the results were not definitive.

"This is a probability rather than a definitive conclusion," said Encana spokesman Doug Hock. "For an agency that prides itself on science, that's surprising."

The EPA released the results in draft form Thursday and emphasized that its results were specific to the area around Pavillion and did not necessarily apply to other gas basins, which have different geologic characteristics.

Still, the agency's findings are likely to escalate the fight over hydraulic fracturing, which involves pushing water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressures in order to break up gas-bearing rock. The drilling practice has helped fuel a boom in U.S. production of natural gas, but some environmental groups say it should be banned because the chemicals might contaminate drinking water. The industry has said that when wells are constructed properly, that won't happen.

EPA opened its investigation at Pavillion three years ago. It has twice tested existing drinking water wells in the area and found methane and other compounds associated with gas drilling, but those levels were generally below established health standards. Encana's Hock said those compounds occur naturally in areas that sit atop gas reservoirs.

The latest test results came from two wells that EPA itself constructed, and which reached to depths of about 775 and 970 feet, deeper than other private water wells in the area. It detected levels of benzene, a carcinogen, that exceeded safe drinking water standards as well as synthetic chemicals--glycols and alcohols--used in hydraulic fracturing fluid. The shallowest zone of gas production in the vicinity of the two wells was about 1,600 feet, the agency said.

Dusty Horwitt, senior public lands analyst for the Environmental Working Group, said the new finding mirrored an EPA study in the late 1980s that also connected hydraulic fracturing to water contamination. "The new finding points to the need for broader testing to determine how fracking endangers groundwater and what steps can be taken to prevent toxic pollution by gas drilling," he said.

Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), a drilling proponent and one of EPA's chief critics in Congress, said the agency's finding was premature. "It is irresponsible for EPA to release such an explosive announcement without objective peer review," he said. "EPA's conclusions are not based on sound science but rather on political science."

The agency said it was taking public comments on the analysis and would have the report peer-reviewed by a panel of independent scientists.

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