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New Study Finds High Levels of Arsenic in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites

A Q&A with Brian Fontenot, whose research gives the latest indication that fracking may be tied to arsenic contamination.

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Brian Fontenot and Kevin Schug, two of the authors of a new study that ties fracking to arsenic contamination. (University of Texas Arlington)

A recently published study by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater near natural gas fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale.

While the findings are far from conclusive, the study provides further evidence tying fracking to arsenic contamination. An internal Environmental Protection Agency PowerPoint presentation recently obtained by the Los Angeles Times warned that wells near Dimock, Pa., showed elevated levels of arsenic in the groundwater. The EPA also found arsenic in groundwater near fracking sites in Pavillion, Wyo., in 2009 — a study the agency later abandoned.

ProPublica talked with Brian Fontenot, the paper’s lead author, about how his team carried out the study and why it matters. (Fontenot and another author, Laura Hunt, work for the EPA in Dallas, but they conducted the study on their own time in collaboration with several UT Arlington researchers.) Here’s an edited version of our interview:

 

What led you guys to do the study?

We were sort of talking around lunch one day, and came up with the idea of actually going out and testing water in the Barnett Shale. We’d heard all the things that you see in the media, all the sort of really left-wing stuff and right-wing stuff, but there weren’t a whole lot of answers out there in terms of an actual scientific study of water in the Barnett Shale. Our main intent was to bring an unbiased viewpoint here — to just look at the water, see if we could find anything, and report what we found.

 

What kind of previous studies had been done in this vein?

The closest analog that I could find to our type of study are the things that have been done in the Marcellus Shale, with Rob Jackson’s group out at Duke University. Ours is set up very similarly to theirs in that we went out to private landowners’ wells and sampled their water wells and assayed them for various things. We decided to go with a list of chemicals thought to be included in hydraulic fracturing that was actually released in a congressional report. Our plan was to sample everyone’s water that we could, and then go through that list of these potential chemical compounds within the congressional list.

 

How did you do it?

We were able to get a press release put out from UT Arlington that went into the local newspapers that essentially called for volunteers to be participants in the study. For being a participant, you would get free water testing, and we would tell them our results. We were upfront with everyone about, you know, we don’t have a bias, we’re not anti-industry, we’re not pro-industry. We’re just here to finally get some scientific data on this subject. And we had a pretty overwhelming response.

From there we chose folks that we would be able to get to. We had to work on nights and weekends, because we had an agreement with EPA to work on this study outside of work hours. So we spent quite a few weekend days going out to folks who had responded to our call and sampling their water. But that wasn’t quite enough. We also had to get samples from within the Barnett Shale in areas where fracking was not going on, and samples from outside the Barnett Shale where there’s no fracking going on, because we wanted to have those for reference samples. For those samples we went door to door and explained to folks what our study was about.

We have people that were pro-industry that wanted to participate in this study to help out — saying, you know, ‘You’re not going to find anything and I’m going to help you prove it.’ And we also had folks that were determined to find problems. We have the whole gamut of folks represented in our study.  

We would take a water well, and we would go directly to the head, the closest we could get to the actual water source coming out of the ground, and we would purge that well for about 20 minutes. That ensures that you’re getting fresh water from within the aquifer. So we didn’t take anything from the tap, and nothing that had been through any kind of filtration system. This was as close to the actual groundwater as we could get. We took some measurements, and then we took several samples back to UT Arlington for a battery of chemistry analyses. That’s where we went through and looked for the various volatile organic compounds and heavy metals and methanols and alcohols and things like that.

 

What did you find?

We found that there were actually quite a few examples of elevated constituents, such as heavy metals, the main players being arsenic, selenium and strontium. And we found each of those metals at levels that are above EPA’s maximum contaminate limit for drinking water.

These heavy metals do naturally occur in the groundwater in this region. But we have a historical dataset that points to the fact that the levels we found are sort of unusual and not natural. These really high levels differ from what the groundwater used to be like before fracking came in. And when you look at the location of the natural gas wells, you find that any time you have water wells that exceed the maximum contaminate limit for any of these heavy metals, they are within about three kilometers of a natural gas well. Once you get a private water well that’s not very close to a natural gas well, all of these heavy metals come down. But just because you’re close to a natural gas well does not mean you’re guaranteed to have elevated contaminate levels. We had quite a few samples that were very close to natural gas wells that had no problems with their water at all.

We also found a few samples that had measureable levels of methanol and ethanol, and these are two substances that don’t naturally occur in groundwater. They can actually be created by bacterial interactions underwater, but whenever methanol or ethanol occur in the environment, they’re very fleeting and transient. So for us to be able to actually randomly take a grab sample and detect detectable methanol and ethanol — that implies that there may be a continuous source of this.

 

You found levels of arsenic in areas with fracking that were almost 18 times higher than in areas without fracking or in the historical data. What would happen to someone who drank that water?

Arsenic is a pretty well-known poison. If you experience a lot of long-term exposure to arsenic, you get a lot of different risks, like skin damage, problems with the circulatory system or even an increased risk of cancer. The levels that we found would not be a lethal dose, but they’re certainly levels that you would not want to be exposed to for any extended period of time.

 

What about the other stuff you found?

The heavy metals are a little bit different because they are known to be included in some fracking recipes. But they’re also naturally occurring compounds. We think the problem is that they’re becoming concentrated at levels that aren’t normal as a result of some aspect of natural gas extraction.

It’s not necessarily that we’re saying fracking fluid getting out. We don’t have any evidence of that. But there are many other steps involved, from drilling the hole to getting the water back out. A lot of these can actually cause different scenarios whereby the naturally occurring heavy metals will become concentrated in ways they normally wouldn’t. For example, if you have a private water well that’s not kept up well, you’ll have a scale of rust on the inside. And if someone were to do a lot of drilling nearby, you may find some pressure waves or vibrations that would cause those rust particles to flake out into the water. Arsenic is bound up inside that rust, and that can actually mobilize arsenic that would never be in the water otherwise.

Methanol and ethanol are substances that should not be very easy to find in the groundwater naturally. We definitely know that those are on the list of things that are known to be in hydraulic fracturing fluid. But we were unable to actually sample any hydraulic fracturing fluid, so we can’t make any claims that we have evidence fluids got into the water.

 

Have you talked with the homeowners whose wells you sampled?

We have shown those homeowners the results. I think most of the folks that had high levels of heavy metals were not necessarily surprised.  You hear so much I think maybe they were expecting it to come back with something even more extreme than that. I don’t want to say they were relieved, but I think they all sort of took the news in stride and realized, OK, well, as a private well owner there’s no state or federal agency that provides any kind of oversight or regulation, so it’s incumbent on that well owner to get testing done and get any kind of remediation.

 

Do you think fracking is responsible for what you found?

Well, I can’t say we have a smoking gun. We don’t want the public to take away from this that we have pegged fracking as the cause of these issues. But we have shown that these issues do occur in close relation, geographically, to natural gas extraction. And we have this historical database from pretty much the same exact areas that we sampled that never had these issues until the onset of all the fracking. We have about 16,000 active wells here in the Barnett Shale, and that’s all popped up in about the last decade, so it’s been a pretty dramatic increase.

We noticed that when you’re closer to a well, you’re more likely to have a problem, and that today’s samples have problems, while yesterday’s samples before the fracking showed up did not. So we think that the strongest argument we can say is that this needs more research.

Hm.  I have a suspicion, here, but I’m not sure what to make of it.

Quickly reading up on arsenic, it looks like it’s found largely in exactly the organic materials that are the most likely candidates to becoming oil (leafy vegetation) or convert oil into natural gas (bacteria).  So, it seems like this is potentially straightforward.

What to do about it is another story, but it’s entirely possible it’s not the fracking but the target causing the problem.  More research would definitely be a good thing for everybody.  A good place to start is to see if there’s any other correlation between arsenic and petroleum that has so far gone unnoticed.

Of course, the alternative possibility is that the proprietary fracking fluids that are so perfectly safe we shouldn’t know what’s in it contain some level of arsenic.  Hard to imagine why that might be, though, other than as an idiotically-expensive explosive component (like phosphorous compounds such as fertilizer are used traditionally).

Is it fracking per se that is the issue? Or is there contamination around any natural gas (or petroleum) drilling site?

To answer your question Joe, it’s too early to say. This study is inconclusive without further research. But this is the way of the scientific method; just about every study ever done concludes with the words “needs further research”. And the reason why this research has not been done is that the drilling companies don’t want to do it. It should be incumbent on them to to the appropriate research BEFORE drilling (in a rational universe) but that would restrict their profit-taking. And once more, profits are privatized while costs are socialized. It’s very similar to the way GMO’s have been forced on us without any research into health risks.

Mike,
I find it wise that you’ve suggest research BEFORE drilling. Part of the team Dr. Fontenot was with out of UT-Arlington is in the process of performing a time-lapse study of groundwater in the Cline Shale. “Before” and “During” drilling samples of water have been collected. They are currently trying to raise funds to continue this valuable research in the Cline Shale of West Texas. Their crowdfunding project page is below.

https://www.microryza.com/projects/time-lapse-analysis-of-groundwater-as-a-function-of-hydraulic-fracturing

Given the ability of a wealthy few - typically from either the hydrocarbons or financial sectors - to buy the Republicans outright and the neoliberals among the Democrats at wholesale prices, it would behoove those who live around fracking and/or other hydrocarbon retrieval sites to be proactive…to look into such things as active filter media:

http://www.prezi.com/47i1eyw7o7sp/eco-india-arsenic-drinking-water-treatment/

One must always keep the general ethos of those aforementioned Republicans and neoliberal Democrats in mind…theirs is an ethical system that permits the sacrifice of the lives of many, many Americans to further enrich a few. 

Put another way, be proactive ‘cuz Congress doesn’t have the backs of the American people anymore.

Lets come at this from a different angle. With 16000 current wells in use in PA, simply multiply that number by the initial casing failure rate and that will yield a number that will scare you. Then calculate the casing failure rate over the life of the well, and that number will frighten everyone. Cement is not infallible not are the firms that case the wells.

Simple math shows you that contamination WILL occur, not if, but when.

If casing technology we more than concrete, perhaps it would be less of an issue….but at a 5% initial failure rate quoted by some very notable industry documents, that means that 5 wells out of 100 are broken on day one.

The rest is just industry spin.

Once a watershed / aquifer / well is contaminated, how do you fix it?

the answer is you cant.

Simply drag the gas CEO’s in front of Congress and ask them to have their children drink well water from Dimock & Pavillion.

Lets see who has the facts then.

I am not willing to buy quite yet that arsenic higher levels are a result of fracking. I will keep an open mind.

I was brought up in Southern WV and the water we drank was deemed unsafe. In fact at one time the signs upon entering our little community stated ‘Montcalm, West Virginia, Unsafe Water’. Lot of coal mining in the region.

I now live out West where it is not uncommon to find a large quantity of arsenic in the water in many, many areas. Most areas no mining nor fracking.

Since arsenic is naturally occurring granted there may be disturbance from fracking. Or one might consider levels of the water table changing.

Steve Hopkins

Aug. 8, 2013, 5:20 p.m.

Imagine that. Part of what the moribund U.S. environmental movement needs is an angrier soundtrack, not bogged down with musical baggage from old, hippy-dippy environmental campaigns. Here’s a new American anthem guaranteed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few emotionally sensitive people over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Scream your anger!
https://soundcloud.com/biff-thuringer/to-america

More evidence that validates"The Judys” claims in Triple Divide which found arsenic in her well at 5 times the EPA MCL warrants a DEP & EPA investigation into the cause of contamination; not simply a dismissal of the case because the complaint was filed outside of a 6 month window…
check out the film @ProPublica, you’re in it.

Check out “The Judys” preview clips from the film: https://vimeo.com/53450267

Very thoughtful researchers trying to do good science.  Yet, in spite of their cautions we have the full gamut of conspiracies.

The 16,000 wells are in the Barnett Shale, Texas.  I am thoughtfully interested in the density of the sampling and the region covered.  Another very good next step would be to map the near surface and intersecting fault systems.  That is expensive and very time consuming.  There may also be a severe limitation on the availability of suitable data to make maps from.

I am curious about their suppositions for concentrating mechanisms that would cause the higher levels of arsenic to gather in and around wells and the nearby subsurface.  These are the things that keep good scientists up late to ponder.

We cannot compare Pavilion to the Barnett.  Pavilion has a checkered history that goes back more than 40 years before the current drilling campaigns.  That area has problems that were created before most of us were born.  That doesn’t prevent us from addressing the problem.  But it should be obvious to the rational person that you cannot place all of the blame on the people working their today.  It would be like blaming a land owner for not putting out a barn fire fast enough, that was started by another who left the area.

Captain Caveman

Aug. 8, 2013, 11:02 p.m.

You may have naturally occurring arsenic in the area. The levels between the groundwater and the surrounding sediment would have reach an equilibrium between what leaches into the water and what remains in the sediment.  (GW conc. = X) Fracking introduces a change in conditions. Temperature. pH, etc. There is bound to have a change in GW concentrations with the change in conditions. The odds of X remaining exactly the same are unlikely.  (GW conc. = +X or -X) Is the change measurable? is this change significant?

Lay terms: Think of washing your soiled clothes in cold and washing them in hot, soapy water. Which is leach more stains from your clothes? Will that someone still love you if your shirt is not-so-white?

It appears that some folks just want to kill off the excess population! Another recent study of imported apple juice found levels of arsenic much higher than permitted! The gov.said it was the safe kind(inorganic)but analysis found that they lied! It was the bad kind found in agricultural sprays banned here! Much of this juice,which parents give to children came from,you guessed it;China! Check the labels on your food,and don’t drink the water!!!!

Richard Fedder

Aug. 9, 2013, 12:18 p.m.

Why is it that the public and even these EPA scientists do not understand that the issue is not (at least not primarily) about chemicals added into the fracking fluid.  The real poisons are down there a mile or two deep in the shale.  And when you pump water at high pressure, it bounces back up (called flowback) full of these “naturally occurring” toxins that would never have come up without this extreme extraction process.  The water that comes back up is a toxic brew of heavy metals like arsenic, barium, strontium, etc,, volatile organic compounds, radium 226 and 228, radon, AND whatever chemicals the industry itself threw down there and keeps secret from us (Those include highly toxic diesel fuel compounds to make what they call “slick-water”, such as benzene and toluene).

Now does fracking create all of these chemicals—Well of course not.  But it causes them to come up.  And when there are unexpected fissures and cracks underground, either naturally occurring or from old abandoned and often uncharted well shafts, they shoot back up uncontrolled, potentially contaminating groundwater, sometimes even forming geysers at the surface.  Also in Pa, six to seven percent of well casings fail in the first year, leaking this toxic brew into the ground.

Are these “accidents”, “human error”, or caused by fracking?  Who really cares.  They are poison all the same.  The question is: How much must the public suffer—both in money and poor health from these fracking “accidents”.

Finally, keep in mind, one well makes several million gallons of this toxic brew.  The industry has big plans.  They are certainly planning at least one hundred thousand of these wells.

And all that water is lost forever.  Well, at best its put in deep injection wells that are at best tested once every five years for leaks. Water for Oil is a fool’s trade.

If you think this is safe, then you probably think lead paint is safe.  And asbestos.  And cigarettes.  The same arguments are used by industry in each case—You can’t prove that cigarette smoke caused your lung cancer.  Lung cancer occurs naturally.

With all these good logical reasons for concern, why shouldn’t the burden be placed on the industry to prove the process can be done safely.  Reports indicate there are already about 1000 spills a year from fracking.  How is this safe?

Richard, you do bring up good points. “Why is it that the public and even these EPA scientists do not understand”? I doubt they don’t understand, but EPA scientists are under industry pressure, and scientists are noncommittal by training. Regulatory agencies must be hotbeds of politics, judging by their lack of efficacy. And the general public are pretty much all over the map; opinions vary according to their media of choice.
Of course, to a rational person, it would seem obvious that the arsenic and other toxins (you mentioned) are freed up (by the fracking process) from their historic bivouacs. And they quite naturally when disturbed become part of the water table. So they are naturally occuring, as some above have suggested; that doesn’t mean they are not toxic. The fracking process is designed to do exactly this: homogenize the subsurface and draw off the desired contents. What isn’t part of the equation is that the homogenization process will be widespread in its effects, and we know what those effects are- it looks like by the time we as a species realize we’re fouling our own nests, the water table will be ruined for eternity (eternity in terms of humans that is; it will take a geologic age for it to be safe again)

I’m also curious about historic water table levels vs. current water table and if that would have any effect such as further concentrating the naturally-occurring arsenic. 

I know that Texas in particular has experienced recent severe droughts.  What changes have you seen in water tables in the region?

I thought the flow back under goes filtration.

“While the findings are far from conclusive,” WE ARE GOING TO HEADLINE IT BECAUSE WE ARE ULTRA-LIBERAL IDIOTS.

Iris Marie Bloom

Aug. 10, 2013, 10:49 a.m.

Richard made the most important point and I hope both the journalist and the scientists read it and “get it.” The scientists should have approached this project with a list of flowback constituents—The poisons Richard pointed out that come back up from where they are safely locked away a mile or two down below in the shale—in addition to fracking additives. They should, even more important, include drilling lubricants that are used, drilling muds, which make contact with the aquifer when the drill bit first pierces the earth with no cement or steel casing in place.
    Nonetheless this is an incredibly important finding. Many families in PA impacted by shale gas drilling have shown signs of arsenic poisoning, as have animals—and elevated arsenic levels have shown up in the blood. What’s been poorly understood is the migratory pathways for elevated arsenic to occur after drilling and fracking, and this study - including the arsenic-containing rust - is a step in that direction.
    While the studies go on, we need a moratorium on this inherently toxic, inevitably damaging unconventional drilling especially since methane leaks + all GHG emissions from life-cycle fracking are worse for climate than C02 from coal! Step up the pressure everywhere you can to slow it and stop it, to protect life. Water is life!

Charles Stewart

Aug. 10, 2013, 11:57 a.m.

If you are really worried about arsenic due to fracking, go google Andrea Rossi E-Cat and also google Defkalion and Brian Westenhaus’ 07 Aug 2013 article in Oilprice.com.

I would like to point out why “frank trades” makes no sense. The first sentence talks about scientific findings as if they matter. The second sentence resorts to labeling, insult, politics, and probably a couple of other straw men too.  Opinions are liberal or (its opposite). Science is relatively objective. So this statement is patently opinion. And we all have one of those.

From a couple of posts up:
“While the findings are far from conclusive,” WE ARE GOING TO HEADLINE IT BECAUSE WE ARE ULTRA-LIBERAL IDIOTS. ”

I greatly appreciate how so many here are dedicated to the science and public policy issues dispassionately and without bias.  Thank you all.

I am a bit confused by the reference to methanol and ethanol.  Were those found in the groundwater in relatively high concentrations? High levels of metals are one thing, but organic molecules not normally found in groundwater are far more convincing.  I would like to know more about this.

Thank you again.

Might be the fracking, might not. As indicated in the article, arsenic does occurr naturally in groundwater, and the levels that are considered “normal” for the area are averages, meaning some concentraions of are higher, some are lower. I think they need to take some bedrock and soil samples and analyze the concentrations of trace metals they find.

We have a bizarre situation in Lochgelly WV where hydraulic fracking wastewater has been hauled in from other areas and dumped into sediment pits for the past several years. The injection well and sediment pits are located only a mile or so from our public schools and residential neighborhoods.  Recent water testing was done just below the sediment pits and above any other possible sources of contamination.  The test results show very high levels of Diethylene Glycol, Monoethylene Glycol, Triethylene Glycol, extremely high levels of Bromide, Strontium, Chloride etc.  The WVDEP, office of Oil and Gas, say their water test results show no contamination but they did not test for chemicals related to fracking.

You can see the frack dump site by going to a website put together by some concerned health professionals:

http://www.DirtyWaterWV.com

Do you have any suggestions that would be helpful in protecting the surrounding communities?

Has anyone figured out how many gallons of waste water have already been injected, when they started injections, how much is being injected and projected injections in the near future? How far down are the injections and what studies were done by the gas companies before they started injecting

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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