Water Near a Bunch of Texas Fracking Sites Is Polluted for Some Reason

Just a random photo of a well head here to, um, fill space. Not suggesting anything. No way.
Joshua Doubek

On the slick website of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a lobbying organization for the local drilling industry, an anonymous man asks a question on behalf of his worried wife. "My wife is concerned about potential contamination of our 800-foot-deep well. Who will oversee the safe drilling of the well which assures no spilling effects to the water at that level?" he asks. The industry responds underneath with an assurance that all drilling activity, including water-related issues, is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, which is doing a great job. 

But out in the real world, scientists at UT-Arlington have published a study suggesting that just maybe his worried wife isn't so dumb after all. In a study published in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal, a research team lead by Dr. Zacariah Hildebrand documents their findings on local drinking water. His team analyzed 550 groundwater samples collected from aquifers over the Barnett Shale, the formation in North Texas that has been profitable to local drillers but slowly pissing off our nearby suburbs. The results make a strong case for a home water filter, one of the expensive ones:  

We detected elevated levels of 10 different metals and the presence of 19 different chemical compounds, including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. These results constitute the largest analysis of groundwater quality in aquifers overlying a shale formation associated with UOG [unconventional oil and gas] activities. 

None of those chemicals is good for us, though we're already exposed to them from a variety of sources. Benzene in particular is a known carcinogen that environmental groups and scientists have warned for years was used by the gas industry in the fracking process. (The chemicals aren't banned for use in drilling because of the so-called "Halliburton Loophole," a law passed by Congress in 2005 that exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act).

The industry hasn't denied using benzene in the past but has said that there's no risk of it getting into groundwater. Such a risk, an industry spokesman told Bloomberg News last year, "would only actually exist if there were examples of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater. There aren’t."

Locally, a Barnett Shale drilling lobbyist claims that benzene isn't in the fracking fluid that drillers use in the Barnett Shale. "The components used in the fracking fluid here don't contain benzene," says Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. "I don't know about any other places."

This study doesn't outright say that drillers are the source of the benzene, just that they're a possible source. The study's results, the researchers write, "do not necessarily identify UOG [unconventional oil and gas] activities as the source of contamination; however, they do provide a strong impetus for further monitoring and analysis of groundwater quality in this region as many of the compounds we detected are known to be associated with UOG [unconventional oil and gas] techniques." So, there's a chance that the fracking industry isn't contaminating groundwater. But your water still has benzene in it. Hurray! 

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