Journalism in the Public Interest

EPA Fracking Study to Focus on Five States—But Not Wyoming

The Environmental Protection Agency has picked seven sites in five states that it will focus on for its national study of the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The sites do not include two counties in Wyoming, where the EPA has already been collecting data for three years.


An oil rig drilling into the Bakken Formation near Stanley, N.D. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency will focus its national study of hydraulic fracturing on seven areas in five states but will exclude the two Wyoming gas fields where agency researchers have already collected some of the most in-depth data on drilling's environmental impacts.

The study—which was announced last March, without specifics on research sites—will investigate alleged water contamination from drilling in five areas in Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. It also will encompass cradle-to-grave research projects in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, where the agency will track drilling's effects on water quality from before the drill bit hits the ground to after hydraulic fracturing has been performed.

"This is about using the best possible science to do what the American people expect the EPA to do—ensure that the health of their communities and families are protected," said Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development, in a statement.

Conspicuously absent from the list are sites in Sublette County and Pavillion, Wyo., where EPA scientists began testing water and collecting data three years ago in response to allegations of drilling-related contamination. In Sublette County, one of the most active drilling fields in the country, researchers discovered benzene in 88 water wells in 2008 and have been testing ever since. In Pavillion, the EPA found metals, methane, hydrocarbons and traces of compounds related to fracking chemicals in residential water wells in 2009.

Research in both areas is ongoing and may still inform the EPA's work, but it will not play a central role in the nationwide investigation into whether hydraulic fracturing is safe or presents a risk to drinking water. The EPA did not immediately respond to questions about the role of the Wyoming research.

Fracturing is a process used to extract trapped oil and gas from thousands of feet below ground by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under enough force to shatter the rock and allow the oil and gas to flow out. Advancements in the technology have made large, deeply buried natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere accessible for the first time. But the process is exempt from federal regulation, and there is little research showing where the chemicals wind up after they are pumped underground or how they can be safely disposed of after the drilling is finished.

A series of articles by ProPublica beginning in 2008 found a pattern of groundwater water pollution across states where fracturing is used to tap natural gas. Residents in these areas complained they could light their faucets on fire and had suffered health effects they worried were caused by the drilling processes.

Now Congress is weighing bills that would lead to regulation of fracturing, and the EPA is undertaking the first national study to evaluate the effects of fracturing on drinking water.

On Thursday, the EPA said it had narrowed down more than 40 prospective research sites to seven based on factors ranging from the size of the population and the proximity of drinking water supplies to drilling, to health complaints and the extent of alleged contamination.

Five research projects will take a forensic approach, retroactively investigating places where drilling has already occurred and where contamination has been alleged. The sites for these projects are:

● Kildeer and Dunn Counties in North Dakota's Bakken Shale
● Wise and Denton Counties in Texas' Barnett Shale
● Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale
● Washington County, also in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale
● Las Animas County in Colorado's Raton Basin

At two additional sites—in DeSoto Parish, La., in the Haynesville Shale and a separate site in Washington County, Pa.—the EPA will attempt to observe and measure the changes drilling brings to an area as it happens.

These prospective studies could prove the most interesting and the most challenging. To gain access to drilling sites, EPA researchers have partnered with two companies that have agreed to allow agency scientists to be present before a drill pad is cleared, as it is drilled and as it is hydraulically fractured. In a public conference call Thursday, EPA officials mentioned Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources as possible partners but did not confirm these were the companies it had begun working with. Chesapeake is the predominant drilling company in the Haynesville Shale, and Range is active in central and western Pennsylvania.

The lifecycle study will allow the EPA to test water quality near the drilling sites before any activity takes place and then monitor for changes as the companies drill their wells. It also will allow the EPA to collect and test fracturing fluids and other waste that flows back out of the well, providing an exact chemical portrait that can be compared to water contaminants if they are discovered. According to an EPA official, the agency is considering "tagging" the hydraulic fracturing fluids with a benign tracer, a technique that could finally make it possible to see exactly where the injected fracturing fluids wind up.

Elizabeth Wallace

June 24, 2011, 2:08 p.m.

Like to see Tom Ridge on Colbert Report after the EPA report comes out.  See if he sings a different tune.

I keep hearing sorry stories about farmers being adversely affected by the process.  This is a good step to learn about this process and try and prevent harm that could happen anywhere.

Delia Marculetiu

June 24, 2011, 3:52 p.m.

How long will the study last and when will the EPA release their findings?

The EPA study will be defunded in late Jan, 2013 before it is able to make a full report. Unfortunately.

However, it’s science will have been pre-empted by the DOE Frack Subcommittee with its reports in August 2011, and late fall 2011.


Stan Scobie, Binghamton, NY

Seems the EPA study is likely to be moot if the DOE Subcommittee swings a big hammer in August 2011.  Will the DOE Subcommittee have any real data to work with or will they be using the preliminary EPA results from Wyoming and or New York (if anything concrete is coming in from NY.

Can’t tell if I’m looking at the forest or the trees here.  Seems the trees will be speaking for the forest again.


Does anyone know where the site in Washington County in Pennsylvania is at? This is an adjacent county to Allegheny, where Pittsburgh is. I know a family that had a well ruined about 6 month after their home was finished being built and the wife has been very outspoken ever since. The DEP told them that they didn’t have sample of their well water from before the drilling meaning they had not enough evidence for a lawsuit. I am curious if this is the site in Washington County. It would be in Hickory Township.

More tactics of misinformation, delay, misdirection…it’s another smoke screen. The Oil Patchers were told in the Fifties and again in the Sixties that fracking was “dirty” but more importantly not worth the water “contamination” (they call it “Water Use!”) and we had a lot more clean water then than we do now. It took Exxon/Halliburton until 2004 (50+ years) to get GW and Dick in position.

How many wells are there in North America @ 5 million clear, clean gallons of surface water for each one and how many wells will there be before they are finished?

Note: Ya wanna see the “soup” as it comes back up from the ground to the re-cycle pond!

Natural gas is @ $4.26…the break even point for new Gas plays comes in @ $7…$8 billion invested so far in Canada alone…What gives?

Sheri Kimbrough

June 25, 2011, 9:24 p.m.

I live in Wyoming.  Well water here is marginal in many areas, even where no gas or oil activity exists.  Thousands of households haul water rather than using well water—you see 300 gallon tanks in the backs of pickups and water stations for filling them everywhere.  Without testing the water before the fracking, drilling or whatever, it is not possible to know where the problem originated.  Thus, the Wyoming complaints cannot be included without testing before drilling began.

These “Frackin’ guys” don’t care about YOU!

Apache just “pulled out” of Elgin, New Brunswick, Canada but as they did they left 83% of their proprietary, secret, filthy drilling (fracking) cocktail in the ground as they “shut in” their two exploration wells. I guess we shall get to find out what their secret formula was later in our water!

Monte McKenzie

June 27, 2011, 7:17 a.m.

So will there be no drilling & fracking till EPA finds out what it does to drinking water ? 
Who is watching the process?
What guarantees are there in place to keep political influence from contaminating the research data?
We live in a KARST area, our well ends in a limestone cavern 206’ underground in a cave with flowing water.  Nobody has any idea of where that water comes from exactly and there is probably no way to find out!
It may come from many miles away, there is no limit to cave length or direction through this limestone area which overlays the entire Marcellus Shale deposit which sits on top of the geological basement.
What is the possibility of this study actually stopping the pollution of our water supply before it happens?

Charles Bertram

June 28, 2011, 8:04 a.m.

Lose the K

Just started reading ProPublica so I’m not sure how long you’ve been talking about Fracking.  I became aware of it when HBO had the documentary “Gasland” on last year.  It was frightening to find out this has been going on and that no one seemed to be regulating the natural gas industries…thanks in part to Dick Cheney.  It was even more frightening to see all of the “red” zones on the map of the U.S. and notice in particular that the whole state of Michigan was"red”!  More regulation is needed, not less.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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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