What can We Do about this?
By Bernhard Debatin
Fracking is likely to happen in Athens County due to strong economic interests, and with it comes a wide variety of undesirable and unintended consequences. Therefore, the focus of concerned citizens’ activities should be on effective damage control strategies. This part of Concerned About Fracking? will deal with the first of three main damage control strategies: (1) monitoring drinking water. The other two strategies are (2) monitoring community disruption and (3) a moratorium on fracking; they will be explored in the third part of this series.
Obviously, the risk of being affected by accidents and contamination increases the closer one is located to a drilling site. However, water and air pollution travel fast and widely. For instance, it’s not just the landowner’s water well that may get polluted. Aquifers are interconnected underground water systems, usually located in permeable and porous rock through which water can easily move. There’s a good chance that contamination of a water well near a drilling pad may spread through the larger aquifer system.
The most pressing issue is proper monitoring of drinking water sources. Because of the lack of accountability and effective regulation, we have to be seriously concerned that private and municipal water sources will be contaminated. The fracking industry’s track record of wastewater spills, sludge pond overflows, reckless wastewater dumping, and aquifer contamination with fracking chemicals and methane is impressive.
Once it is clear that drilling and fracking will happen at a specific location, residents should make sure to have their water tested professionally, so that they have reliable data that hold up in court. According to Paul Feecel, chair of the Carroll Concerned Citizens group, and Jen Bowman, Environmental Projects Manager at the Voinovich School at Ohio University, testing by a state-certified water testing laboratory should to be done before, during, and after operation (here is a list of Ohio EPA-certified labs). To obtain valid data, it is recommended to have at least three different sampling events for each of these three stages. Testing can be costly, up to $1500 per test, but it is definitely worth the investment if there’s any drilling done on or near one’s property.
Many leases may include some water testing according to EPA standards for potable water. However, those tests only check for Tier 1 and Tier 2 contaminants and do not include Tier 3 volatile chemicals, typically found in water that is contaminated from oil or gas drilling. One should always make sure that all three levels are being tested professionally and properly documented.
Additional information on water testing can be found at the ODNR fact sheet Recommendations for Water Well Sampling Before Oil and Gas Drilling. To save some money, it is also recommendable that landowners form a water testing group and negotiate a group break with a laboratory (often, labs will give a reduction for mass sampling).
Why is water monitoring crucial?
On Dec. 8, 2011, the EPA announced officially that it had found a link between contaminated underground water in Pavillion, WY, and hydraulic fracturing. In the draft report, the EPA concludes: “…the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone” (p.33).
The fracking industry is currently not required by law to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. Some of those chemicals, however, are known and considered highly toxic in even small amounts, particularly those from the BTEX group that were found in the Pavillion, WY, aquifers. Recent reports from Pennsylvania and West Virginia about high concentrations of carcinogens in drinking water resulting from fracking waste confirm the necessity of vigilant water monitoring. Unfortunately, the fracking industry is exempt from most federal environmental laws, including the the Safe Drinking Water Act, so that routine monitoring is not conducted by the EPA. The lack of appropriate federal and state regulation puts the onus on citizens and their ability to convincingly document fracking-related water contamination.
Another aspect of water monitoring is the necessity to keep a close eye on the extraction of water from streams, lakes, and rivers by fracking companies. According to Paul Feecel from the Carroll Concerned Citizens group, Ohio will lose 6.5 billion gallons of water per year by 2014 (when fracking is in full production). To put this in perspective: This represents the annual domestic water usage of ca. 258,000 people in Ohio, or the equivalent of the population of eight counties in the Athens region (see box below).
Most of this water will remain in the wells, while about 20% to 40% will come back to the surface as toxic wastewater, mixed with fracking chemicals and radioactive substances from the shale, and must be disposed of in injection wells, usually after temporary storage in open pits with often insufficient overflow control.
Ohio regulation prescribes that “all water withdrawers with the capacity to withdraw greater than 100,000 gallons per day are required to register and annually report monthly withdrawal quantities (and have been since 1990) pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 1521.16.” A permit and reporting are required above 2,000,000 g.p.d. over a 30 day period. This implies that a single industry can withdraw up to 100,000 gallons per day from local waters without permission and at no charge. In his presentation, Paul Feecel confirmed that it is common practice for fracking companies to build freshwater ponds and fill them up ahead of time by withdrawing the daily amount of unregulated water from lakes and streams. Since a single fracking job requires about one to seven million gallons of water, this can put a serious strain on local water supplies.
For instance, Fox Lake near Athens and close to an area where Cunningham Energy recently signed a lot of leases, encompasses 48 acres. With an assumed average depth of roughly 10 feet, it would have 480 acre feet, which translates into a volume of about 156,408,480 gallons. Assuming the average fracking job consumes 4.5 million to 5 million gallons of water, Fox Lake would be empty after 30 fracking jobs. Given that a single well may be refracked 10 to 12 times, Fox Lake would just have enough water for the life-span of three hydraulic fracking wells.
While Ohio law does not require permits for water withdrawers under 100,000 gallons per day, Section 1521.17 ORC emphasizes the reasonableness of a use of water. Determination of reasonableness depends on the interests of the water user, potential harm caused by the use, existing values (including not just monetary value but also such intangibles as recreation, etc.), and the interests of society as a whole. This leaves the door wide open for a court case against a company withdrawing large amounts of water from Fox Lake or other valuable waters in our county.
Water monitoring with respect to both extraction and contamination of water is an indispensable tool in putting checks on the fracking industry. The expected effect of this damage control strategy is twofold: First, if fracking companies know that their impact on drinking water is being closely monitored, they may act more carefully, even if only for fear of getting sued. Second, if the amount and extent of water extraction is well documented and if the contamination of water has been professionally tested with scientific methods, then potentially harmed parties may have a real chance of receiving restitution in court.
Note: all calculations in this article are my own unless indicated otherwise.