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Groundwater Contamination Higher Near North Texas Gas Wells

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Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells
UT-Arlington
Brian Fontenot, who earned his Ph.D. in quantitative biology from UT Arlington, worked with Kevin Schug, UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and a team of researchers to analyze samples from 100 private water wells

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in private drinking water wells near natural gas wells in North Texas’ Barnett Shale. The scientists analyzed samples from 100 wells, both inside and outside of the Barnett Shale. Their results were published online today in Environmental Science & Technology.

Some wells were near to natural gas production sites; some were not. Although arsenic was found in 99 of the 100 wells, levels were “significantly higher in active [gas] extraction areas.” Twenty-nine of the wells registered arsenic concentrations above levels that the EPA considers safe. One sample, near a natural gas site, was “almost 18 times higher” than levels found in the Barnett Shale prior to the fracking boom as well as the maximum arsenic concentration found in a well outside the active drilling zone.

The findings are likely to fuel continued debate over whether fracking is polluting drinking water. As the oldest major shale play, the Barnett Shale is of particular importance as scientists, regulators and citizens grapple with fracking’s impacts.

The authors, however, are careful to say that the cause of the contamination can’t be definitively pinpointed. Potential causes could include: mechanical failures such as faulty gas well casings or fluid spills; mechanical disturbances from drilling; or dropping water tables from overpumping and drought, (although aquifers in the area are currently rising and the historical data doesn’t show spikes in contaminant levels during past droughts). And like good scientists they call for more research.

“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 and lead author on the new paper.

The Texas oil and gas industry and politicians insist that groundwater pollution isn’t linked to fracking. There’s a grain of truth to this assertion. Despite an astonishing increase in fracking activity in Texas, research is sparse.

“Despite a number of recent investigations,” the authors note, “the impact of natural gas extraction on groundwater quality remains poorly understood.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • SoberMoney

    Oh, these academic studies twist the truth for their own interests.

    I haven’t figured out what those interests would be, but I know it’s true.

    I know, they’re Kenyan socialists up there in Arlington.

  • GerritTonder

    This is the first peer-reviewed article that showed groundwater pollution due to fractivities. Many hundreds of gw pollution cases will follow especially after abandonment of gas wells when pressures will rebuild in the fracked reservoir. Excellent work by prof Schug and his team

  • Gary

    “Sober Money”, if anyone’s got narrow and selfish interests, it’s the oil and gas industry, which sits atop record profits even as consumers pay record prices for gasoline. If researchers thinking that having safe drinking water and not contaminating the ground water supply forever makes them “Kenyan socialists and atheist liberals”, then we need a lot more Kenyan socialists and atheist liberals and a lot fewer phony Christians such as you in Texas.

    • SoberMoney

      Gary, you need to get a life if you can’t see that I’m making fun of the dirty energy supplicants.. Man, there is nothing more embarrassing for environmentalism than a liberal with no sense of humor.

      Mindless political correctness from liberals is just as sad as Fox News “phony Christians.”

      • Gary

        I’ll take your word for it that you were intending to make fun of them. I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor and my reading comprehension is generally fine as well, although I do a lot of blogging and I do occasionally misread someone from time to time. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read Sartre except for a few quotes in a philosophy text some 30 years ago, and considering the source of the comment I have no reason to be intrigued at what “Final Exit” might be about.

        I’ve got a life and if I ever move home I’d like to have safe drinking water as well, that’s all. I guess I should find a way to find some humor in the fact that so many other Texans take it for granted – help me out if you can.

        • SoberMoney

          The water gluttons who think our water is an unlimited gift from God that can be privatized and doled out for their selfish interests are the true phony Christians in my book.

          In that sense it is not funny, as water is the one natural resource that should never be controlled by crony developer private interests.

          Mostly I poke fun at the absurdity of these free markets extremists, and sometimes my humor is misunderstood.

          I AM on your side. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://www.enviroequipment.com/ EnviroEquipment.com

    To all the “Kenyan socialists” and “atheistic liberals” who think that this UTA study validates their belief that hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater, you should first click on the link in the article above to the actual report and read the following conclusion by the study’s authors;

    “… the spatial patterns in our data suggest that elevated constituent levels could be due to a variety of factors including mobilization of natural constituents, hydrogeochemical changes from lowering of the water table, or industrial accidents such as faulty gas well casing”.

    At worst, Texas needs to step up their efforts at monitoring the fracturing wells and associated gas casings but not outright ban this otherwise safe drilling practice altogether.

    • SoberMoney

      EnviroEquipment, with a name like that, what are you, an oil service worker drone?

      You and Gary would be great actors in a fracking industry production of Sartre’s “No Exit.”

  • Gary

    “EnviroEquipment”, we read it and we understood it as well as you did; we just believe that something as important as groundwater needs to be protected at all costs, and that anything that threatens it needs to be very closely and seriously regulated. I’ve heard the oil industry’s claims that fracking occurs at depths far below the water table, but regardless of the exact cause of these extremely elevated arsenic levels, it is apparently somehow related to fracking, and we are rightly very gravely concerned. You and any other sensible, thinking citizens should be as well – our drain America first energy policy with reckless disregard for the environment needs to be stopped forthwith.

    • SoberMoney

      Kenyan atheist socialist.

  • http://media-monitors.blogspot.com/ Public Takeover

    When articles like this refer to, “the continuing debate over whether fracking is polluting drinking water,” I just have to give up. What “debate?” First of all, to life on earth, water — clean water — is the quintessential necessity. Is there any debate about that? Any toxification of the ground and the water poisons the life in the ecosystem. In fact, even low concentrations of toxins, deemed “safe,” concentrate themselves as they go up the food chain. So, the only industrial processes that are really “safe” are those that REMOVE toxins from the ecosystem, not those that INJECT them into the ecosystem in the hundreds, thousands or millions of gallons. Anybody who thinks there’s a “debate” about these facts needs to go look up “debate” in the dictionary.

    Likewise, there’s no debate about fossil fuels either. Burning natural gas isn’t AS TOXIC as burning coal, but it’s still toxic.

    We have a gigantic nuclear reactor currently supplying all the energy everyone on earth will ever need for the life of the human race. There’s no debate about that.

    There’s another fact beyond dispute. The only reason we haven’t, through investment, conservation and cooperation fully converted to a sustainable energy system is human corruption, whether it’s greed, willful ignorance, powerlust or fear.

    Whatever happened to the “debate” about whether or not cigaret smoking is unhealthy?