For years, researchers, environmentalists, and community members living near horizontal hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) sites have argued that this questionable method of extracting natural gas contaminates drinking water. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a controversial draft report regarding an investigation of groundwater pollution related to fracking operations near Pavillion, Wyoming. After examining above- and belowground instances of contamination, the report found that fracking processes can contaminate drinking water. However, EPA scientists were unable to show a widespread, systemic pattern of risk, and the investigation was prematurely withdrawn.
Eventually, one of the EPA scientists leading the original investigation, Dominic C. DiGiulio, left the agency for a job at Stanford University. This year, he and Robert B. Jackson published findings from the Pavillion study in Environmental Science & Technology. Their published findings show that not only did fracking operations pose an above- and belowground risk to drinking water, they strongly affected both. Most significantly, the report showed that natural gas companies in Pavillion have failed to maintain aboveground, unlined pits known as “legacy wells,” resulting in local well contamination. Further, the report shows that current fracking in the region can impact and has affected underground sources of drinking water.
The natural gas industry has refuted that fracking could affect the water supply, but this research provides evidence to the contrary. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Food & Water Watch, says, “Had the EPA finalized its own study with similar findings on Pavillion years ago, we might have already turned the corner toward a clean energy future.”