Colorado gas activists point to old West Virginia fracking case as ‘smoking gun’

Gas drilling at the entrance to Battlement Mesa in Garfield County (David O. Williams photo).

Anti-gas-drilling activists in Colorado are pointing to a 1984 case in West Virginia as the smoking gun proving the industry and government agencies that regulate it have been lying all along about hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater supplies.

The New York Times first broke the story Wednesday after the Environmental Working Group dredged up a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 1987 that “fracking” of a natural gas well contaminated a drinking water source. The EPA study, which was reported to Congress, concluded that fracturing gel from a gas well more than 4,000 below the surface contaminated the drink water well.

For years the natural gas industry has denied that fracking can contaminate groundwater supplies, saying the high-pressure injection of water, sand and undisclosed but toxic chemicals occurs too far below ground to interact with much shallower drinking water supplies.

Just this week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, told a gathering of oil and gas industry officials at the annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association meeting in Denver that, “Everyone in this room understands that hydraulic fracturing doesn’t connect to groundwater, that it’s almost inconceivable that groundwater will be contaminated.”

In its report on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revelations about the 1984 case, the website ProPublica cited a 2006 Garfield County, Colo., case that resulted in a settlement for a badly sickened homeowner. It was strongly suspected that fracking may have contaminated the property owner’s drinking water well, but all the evidence was sealed after the settlement.

And in 2009, a former Colorado School of Mines professor told the Colorado Independent that fracking needed to be studied much more closely than the EPA did when it signed off on a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for the process that was granted in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The EPA is now conducting a new study of the process.

For years, however, industry officials have consistently denied fracking can contaminate drinking water. Now comes the new, old case from West Virginia.

“Now we hear that the [natural gas] industry and their ‘in-the-back-pocket’ regulators may have been lying to us for over 20 years,” Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens, a grassroots activist group on the Western Slope, wrote in an email to members. “Yes, there is evidence that fracking has contaminated water supplies! And could they have been covering it up all along?”

The EWG appears fairly convinced the West Virginia case is that smoking gun.

“When you add up the gel in the water, the presence of abandoned wells and the documented ability of drilling fluids to migrate through these wells into underground water supplies, there is a lot of evidence that EPA got it right and that this was indeed a case of hydraulic fracturing contamination of groundwater,” said Dusty Horwitt, EWG’s senior oil and gas analyst and author of the recent report.

“Now it’s up to EPA to pick up where it left off 25 years ago and determine the true risks of fracking so that our drinking water can be protected.”

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