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Is our thirst for energy ruining our water?

A widespread method of extracting natural gas by fracking, or shooting chemical-laced water underground, is a growing threat to water supplies in 28 states, say scientists, landowners and environmentalists.
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About the Fracking special report

A revolutionary method of drilling for natural gas is good for the nations energy supply but may be poisoning drinking water in 28 states, according to a Scripps Howard News Service investigation. SHNS found that the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking has been linked to water pollution in dozens of cases. The technique involves pumping millions of gallons of toxic fluid underground to punch open vast natural reserves of otherwise unreachable gas. Reporter Isaac Wolf found that the recent spike in drilling using millions of gallons of toxic fluid has overwhelmed state regulators. Using data analysis to review more than 124,000 state inspection records, SHNS found that regulators are unable to keep up with thousands of potential safety and environmental violations. The SHNS investigation, published by newspapers and television stations around the nation, reported that drilling companies have kept secret the list of toxic chemicals used in drilling. We are all for increasing the domestic supply of energy, but lets be careful to not do it at the cost of safe drinking water. Sincerely, Peter Copeland

Editor & General Manager Scripps Howard News Service

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Chickens grew deformed beaks after drinking water allegedly contaminated by nearby frack-well drilling in Wetzel County, W. Va., according to Rosy Hunt, who has raised chickens for 21 years.
SHNS photo by Jason Bartz


Fracking wells blamed for polluted water How frack drilling works At ground zero for fracking, residents say water has gone bad PAGE 13 Lax regulation leaves oily mess for land owner PAGE 16 Shoddy well construction tied to water pollution PAGE 18 Making news around America: Where our series was published PAGE 22 Fracking industry, opponents make political contributions PAGE 24
Drilling location

Reporter Isaac Wolf

1 A drill bit on the end of a drill pipe bores into the ground. Compressed air pumped down the pipe ejects rock cuttings from the hole. FRES Well AQU IF ER

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial but increasingly common method for Photo Editor extracting natural gas from rock. The idea behind fracking, as it is often calle is simple: Drill aPerson underground, crack open the rock with a series of Sheila well deep explosions, then enlarge those ssures by shooting in millions of gallons of chemically laced water. Heres a step-by-step guide to how the drilling Multimedia Editor industry says fracking is supposed to work.


Jason Bartz

Project Editors Peter Copeland Carol Guensburg Lisa Hoffman Bob Jones John Lindsay David Nielsen


drilled just under the deepest water near the surface. Surface casing is inserted into the drilled hole to isolate the fresh water zone.

For more information about the project team, visit The hole is

3 Cement poured down the casing seals off the well bore from the fresh water preventing contamination.

202-408-1484 or Our website Kick-off point Where the curve
begins and the horizontal section is drilled.


Scripps Howard News SHALE Service is part of the E.W. Scripps Co.



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6 Fissures Gas ows into

4 Drilling continues to 500 feet above the planned horizontal section.

The horizontal segment is called


SHNS photo by Jason Bartz

Water from this well in Wetzel County, W. Va., started smelling like industrial chemicals, and testing showed high levels of toxic chemicals after natural gas wells were drilled nearby, according to landowner Bonnie Hall.

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Fracking wells blamed for polluted water

State inspectors overwhelmed by growth in drilling process
By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service
A widespread method of extracting natural gas by shooting chemical-laced water underground is a growing threat to water supplies in 28 states, say scientists, landowners and environmentalists. Known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the practice fractures underground rock formations to release vast but otherwise unreachable quantities of natural gas. In cases surfacing around the country, nearby landowners are claiming their water became poisoned shortly after the drilling process began and theyre convinced frack wells are the cause. But the science of frack wells is uncertain, and the natural gas industry is pushing back hard, saying theyre not to blame. Affected landowners, angry that theyve been unwittingly subjected to poisoned water, say their frustrations have been compounded by unresponsive regulators who fail to fix their water or hold the drilling companies accountable. In fact, a Scripps investigation has found: Overwhelmed, understaffed state inspectors arent keeping up with the booming industry. In the last decade, well drillers have been slapped with 14,409 violations. The violations were from
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the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Mineral Resources Management Division, many are for small infractions like out of date paperwork, but some are for more serious violations like releasing toxic fluids, though sloppy bookkeeping precludes regulators from running computer checks to identify patterns of unresolved violations. An oversight system that landowners say is stacked against them, including regulator salaries paid by drilling royalties and political campaigns flush with natural gas-linked financial donations. I want my water back, said Bonnie Hall, whose water well became spiked with chemicals including styrene, a chemical used in plastics and rubber and associated with liver and kidney problems at over six times the U.S. Food and Drug Administration drinking water limit after two frack wells were drilled near her rural Wetzel County, W. Va., home. Until her 300-foot well started smelling like an industrial-strength cleaning fluid in the fall of 2008, she drew 90 gallons a day from it for her horses. A much shallower, 30-foot-deep well on Halls property inexplicably remains unaffected. They shouldnt frack, Hall said. There are certain things under the ground you shouldnt bother. Theres just too many unknowns down there. The company that drilled the wells near her, Chesapeake Energy headquartered in Oklahoma City, denies responsibility, and says Halls foul water predated their drilling. But landowners like Hall think frack wells, which use millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals, have allowed the tainted fluid to enter the water table.

Industry groups and regulators say theres no evidence of this happening anywhere in Wetzel County or in any other county or state. They cite a 2004 U.S. EPA study that found no evidence that frack drilling pollutes water wells. Critics say the study wasnt sufficient, and that major questions remain about the practice. The EPA has acknowledged more research is needed and is conducting another frack study, set to be complete in 2012. Environmental concerns aside, frack wells are a major advance for the industry and for anyone who uses natural gas to heat their home. The process has opened enough gas to power the United States for many decades, helping keep down home heating prices. The interest group Americas Natural Gas Alliance says the industry provides 2.8 million jobs to Americans. The hydraulic fracturing practice has been used for 60 years, on over a million wells with a proven track record, said Dan Whitten, spokesman for the alliance. Technological improvements have spurred a rush on the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from Ohio and West Virginia into Pennsylvania and southern New York, and is estimated to contain enough gas to meet Americas demand for years or perhaps decades. Other frack well hotspots include the Barnett Shale in north Texas, the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas, and the Haynesville Shale in east Texas and Northwest Louisiana. But along with the spread of drilling have come a

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flood of violations. That means regulators draw their salaries from Data supplied by the Ohio Department of Natu- fees paid by drilling companies. He expects more ral Resources show that well operators in that state inspectors to get hired as his agency approves more have received 14,409 notices of violation since 2000. Marcellus Shale frack wells. Many of the violations reflect paperwork overTugend doesnt consider this a conflict of intersights, but many others are for environmental harm. est, but others do, including Vanessa Pesec, a frack The Ohio data, analyzed by Scripps Howard News well opponent from the Cleveland suburb of Concord Service, show 1,972 violations alone for pollution and Township and an activist in the Northeast Ohio Gas contamination. Nearly 2,000 violations have no elec- and Oil Accountability Project. tronic record of when or if theyve been fixed. She thinks inspectors will be less likely to enforce Pennsylvania officials say their records are in sim- well rules, since the drilling companies are funding ilar shape. The state has issued 8,309 violations since them directly. 2007, but officials there caution that their files which include thousands of violations that Theres so many more violations that were have no date of being fixed trying to keep on top of. We want to make sure cannot be trusted as accurate. they are being addressed. Instead of keeping their books Jamie Legenos, up-to-date, inspectors are dePennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection voting their limited manpower in the field rather than completing paperwork. Theres so many more violations that were trying The Ohio departments funding is based on to keep on top of, said Jamie Legenos, spokeswoman drilling, Pesec said. Theyre not going to alarm the for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental public with the fact that there are a lot of spills that Protection. We want to make sure they are being ad- are done intentionally, or that there are problems. dressed. When it comes to putting in the resolution Its not just regulators who are taking industry date, its just catching up with the paperwork. money. In Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry has In Ohio, a new state law has removed general tripled state campaign contributions in the past three funding from well inspectors, said Thomas Tugend, years, according to, a website deputy chief of the Division of Mineral Resources by Common Cause Pennsylvania, a public interest Management in the states Department of Natural group, and Conversation Voters of Pennsylvania, an Resources. environmental organization.

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How frack drilling works

By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service

Step-by-step guide

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial but increasingly common method for extracting natural gas from rock. The idea behind fracking, as it is often called, is simple: Drill a well deep underground, crack open the rock with a series of explosions, then enlarge those fissures by shooting in millions of gallons of chemically laced water. Once those pathways are large enough, the treasure trove of trapped gas will flow up the well. With advances in technology, multi-stage fracking has become the standard, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group comprising dozens of drilling and well services companies. The Marcellus Shale is a natural gas-rich, underground rock formation stretching from New York to West Virginia. Frack wells arent limited to one size or depth: They can range from just under the water table (usually 500 feet to 1,000 feet below ground level) to well over 10,000 feet under the earths surface. Estimates vary widely on how much fracking fluid is used in the process of drilling them from less than a million gallons to 5 million gallons or more. The fracking fluids, which contain significant

amounts of toxic additives, are supposed to stay safely trapped, usually thousands of feet underground, or get captured cleanly when they flow back up the well to the surface, the industry says. But homeowners, environmentalists and others have reported cases around the nation of toxic fracking fluids infiltrating drinking water. Just what toxic compounds are in those fluids isnt clear. The industry has generally kept the site-bysite ingredient lists a secret from the public, though they are bowing to intense pressure from critics and have released some details. Without full information, frack opponents say, they dont know what chemicals to test for and they sometimes find contaminants in their water like that turn out not to be in frack fluids. Heres a step-by-step guide to how the drilling industry says fracking is supposed to work, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the industry group:

1 Well drilling
A frack well begins like any traditional vertical well. A drill bores into the earth. Compressed air or fluids are used to flush rock cuttings to the surface. The hole typically is drilled to just past the deepest freshwater surface.

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Drilling location

1 A drill bit on the end of a drill pipe bores into the ground. Compressed air pumped down the pipe ejects rock cuttings from the hole. FRES Well AQU IF ER

Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial but increasingly common method for extracting natural gas from rock. The idea behind fracking, as it is often called, is simple: Drill a well deep underground, crack open the rock with a series of explosions, then enlarge those ssures by shooting in millions of gallons of chemically laced water. Heres a step-by-step guide to how the drilling industry says fracking is supposed to work.



2 The hole is drilled just under the deepest water near the surface. Surface casing is inserted into the drilled hole to isolate the fresh water zone.

3 Cement poured down the casing seals off the well bore from the fresh water preventing contamination.


4 Drilling continues to 500 feet above the planned horizontal section.

Kick-off point Where the curve begins and the horizontal section is drilled. The horizontal segment is called the lateral. 6



Fissures Gas ows into the well bore.

About 1/4 mile* Fissures It takes 350 pieces of pipe weighing almost 87 tons to drill a 10,500 foot well. Stages measure about 1,000 ft.* 5 SHAL E


Annulus SHALE Perforating gun




Cement A perforating gun is inserted into the casing and shoots small holes through casing and cement and into the shale formation.

Water mixture Water, sand and lubricants are pumped into the well bore under high pressure forcing the shale to fracture. This is repeated in roughly 1,000-foot segments throughout the horizontal distance of the well.

30 feet long, 495 pounds each

When the target length is reached, cement is sent through production casing lling the space between the casing and the wall of the hole known as the annulus.

*Diagram is schematic. Not to scale.


SHNS graphic by John Bruce


How frack drilling works

2 & 3 Outer barrier
What comes next is crucial. A protective outer layer is inserted into the hole, and its job is to safeguard the fresh water aquifer from toxic fluids or natural gas that will flow through the well. This barrier is called the surface casing, and it includes a layer of cement.

5 Lateral progress
The final stage of the well is the horizontal, or lateral section. Once the horizontal well has been drilled to the desired length, another metal tube is inserted the length of the well. As with the outer protective layer, cement is again pumped around the metal casing. Its supposed to fill any open space outside the casing. This is a critical step: the cement permanently secures the well bore, and it prevents hydrocarbons and other fluids from seeping out into the formation.

4 Drilling continues
With the outer barrier in place, vertical drilling continues. The pipe and bit are lowered back into the hole to drill down, frequently for thousands of feet. The pipe and bit pass through several layers of rock, each of which would serve as a protective barrier if toxic fracking fluid were to percolate up.

Detonating the gun

With the well drilled and lined with cement, its time to start fracking. Explosives and detonation equipment is deployed to the targeted part of the well. Then, a blast of electricity detonates the fracking device, known as a perforating gun. It shoots holes through the wells walls, burrowing in and cracking the surrounding rock above and below the well. The gun may either be moved to another target area within the well or fully removed.

Kickoff point
Unlike traditional vertical wells, modern frack wells tend to be horizontal: After going vertically down thousands of feet from the earths surface, they then curve 90 degrees, ultimately running parallel with the earths surface. To do this, mining companies begin to drill at an angle once they have come within about 500 feet of the desired depth. The place at which they make the turn is known as the kickoff point.

6 Sending in the fluids

The goal is to enlarge the cracks created by the explosions by pumping huge volumes of fluids through the well and into the cracks. As the fluid pushes out of the well, it enters the perforations. The immense pressure causes fractures in the rock. The result is the release of natural gas that had been trapped in the rock.
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SHNS photo by Jason Bartz

Bonnie Hall fills a bucket with water from her 300-foot well. The water smells like an industrialstrength cleaning solvent.

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At ground zero for fracking, residents say water has gone bad
By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service

When the horses stopped drinking, residents here became convinced of their worst suspicions. The water had gone bad. Bonnie Halls eight horses take a lot of water. Fifteen gallons a day, each. Hall was puzzled the November 2008 day the horses left their water bucket untouched. Hall, who has lived on this isolated mountainside plot for 21 years, figured the horses would eventually drink, and left them alone. It wasnt until the next day, when she came to check on them, that she realized their water was dark. Now, the horses drinking water drawn from a 300-foot well smells like an industrial-strength cleaning solvent. Hall has shipped in water for her horses ever since, though shes continued to drink water from a much shallower, 30-foot well that inexplicably has remained unaffected. This shallow well frequently goes dry, and cannot provide enough water for the horses,

Hall said. Overwhelmed with the burden of shipping water, shes given up two horses and plans to give up two more this winter. Neighbors had suffered declining health during the fall of 2008. After hearing about Halls horses, they became convinced that newfound natural gas drilling within about a mile of her property was poisoning their water. Hall and others in this isolated mountain county want drilling companies to fix the water that wasnt bad until the drilling began earlier that summer, they say. At the center of their grievance is a natural gasdrilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, to blast open underground rock formations that contain natural gas. Drilling companies insist that the fluids they use stay securely underground or are captured cleanly when they come back up through the well. But Hall and her neighbors are convinced otherwise. They live in rural Wetzel County, ground zero for fracking. Located at the southern base of West VirWINTER 2010 13


Shale Gas Plays, Lower 48 States

Montana Thrust Belt Cody Williston Basin Gammon

Greater Green River Basin Uinta Basin Mancos

HilliardBaxterMancos Forest City Basin

Michigan Basin


Appalachian Basin

Illinois Basin Piceance Basin Pierre Raton Basin ExcelloMulky Cherokee Platform New Albany


Devonian (Ohio)

Hermosa Paradox Basin Lewis San Juan Basin

Anadarko ArdBasin m Palo Duro Bend ore Ba sin Basin Permian Basin


Arkoma Basin

Chattanooga Conasauga Valley and Ridge Province

Black Warrior Basin Floyd-

Ft. Worth Basin


Marfa Basin PearsallEagle Ford


HaynesvilleBossier Maverick
Eagle Ford

Texas- Neal LouisianaMississippi Salt Basin

Miles 0 100 200 300 400

Rio Grande Embayment

Shale Gas Plays Stacked Plays

Shallowest / Youngest Deepest / Oldest


on Administration based on data from various published studies. 0

Source: Energy Information Administration, March 2010.

ginias panhandle, Wetzel County sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock formation stretching from New York to West Virginia. Records show the county hosts 1,126 active wells, many of them frack wells drilled against the wishes of local residents. But its unclear whether frack wells are actually to blame for Halls bad water. As landowners with bad water like Hall around the nation try to build cases against the companies that drill the wells near them, theyre struggling to prove the connection.

Meantime, they face an industry thats not forthcoming about what chemicals theyre pumping underground. The drilling industry says it is reluctant to share information because of its proprietary value, but frack critics say the chemicals are kept secret because of how toxic they are. Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company based in Oklahoma City which drilled three wells near Halls property, denies responsibility for the contamination, and says that Hall first complained of bad wa-

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ter before the company began the fracking stage of its three wells. Protecting underground sources of water is a top priority and we take every concern very seriously, said Matt Sheppard, Chesapeakes senior director of corporate development in a written statement to Scripps on Nov. 2. After careful analysis and investigation, we believe the data clearly shows we are not responsible for Mrs. Halls water well quality. State-commissioned testing concluded the contamination was from leaked gasoline not fracking fluids even though Hall said there are no gasoline tanks near her property. Gene Smith, regulatory compliance manager for the states Department of Environmental Protection, investigated the contamination. He did not return a call to comment. Each well near Halls property was blasted with an average of 4.05 million gallons of frack fluid, according to Sheppard. He declined to say exactly what the chemicals were used during fracking, instead pointing to a general fact sheet that included some but not all details about the frack fluid ingredient list. The longstanding battle to disclose exactly whats in fracking fluids intensified Nov. 9. Thats when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it issued a subpoena to Halliburton, demanding that the Houston-based drilling services giant disclose the chemical composition of their frack fluids, according to the federal agency. Multiple rounds of testing were conducted from April 2009 to May of 2010 by Halls neighbors and fellow frack-opponents, Marilyn and Robert Hunt, who had access to technical equipment through his employer, Bayer MaterialScience. Because the testing was not done under strict conditions, its not admissible in court, they admit.

It showed that Halls water worsened four months after the second well was fracked, in October 2009. Water samples showed dramatic increases in toxic chemicals including acrylonitrile, benzene, and styrene. In Halls water the concentration of acrylonitrile a chemical used widely in plastics had spiked to over 734 times above the federal Environmental Protection Agency limit for lakes and streams. The chemical is a human carcinogen, and in animal testing has caused brain cancer and paralysis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sheppard denied that Chesapeake uses acrylonitrile, or many of the other contaminants found in Halls well. Another round of water testing in May showed that the water quality had improved significantly, even though some contaminants were still above federal standards. The fact that Halls nearby well remained untarnished shows something crucial: The way that fluids move underground is usually a mystery, experts say. Conrad Volz, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburghs Graduate School of Public Health, has heard other complaints that drinking water near frack well sites was contaminated with acrylonitrile. But he has researched the chemical and has found no connection to fracking. Hall has suffered no health problems from the tainted well, since her drinking water comes from the shallower well, which has been unaffected. But shes suffered in other ways, she says. Ive lost the value of my house. Ive lost my water supply, Hall said. I want my water back. I dont see why I should have to give up my livestock so they can pump.
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Lax regulation leaves oily mess for Ohio landowner

By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service This past spring, it didnt take long for Shawn Seitz to figure out why the natural spring on his getaway property in rural eastern Ohio had turned the color of oily chocolate milk. A well pumping gas and oil each afternoon was dumping hundreds of gallons of waste fluid into a nearby creek, he said. Seitzs investment a picturesque 109-acre refuge from his suburban Cleveland life wasnt the only thing quickly turning sour. The rogue well on his property, which was being pumped by another man, was making the soil on his Monroe County property stink like an open sewer, he said. Ribbons of oil were making their way through the creek, which feeds into the Ohio River. Soil tests commissioned by the state showed huge spikes in chloride, sodium and strontium, which at high levels can impair bone growth in children, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seitz says he thinks the well, which had been abandoned years ago, was fracked to jump-start production. But state officials have no record of this, according to Tom Tugend, deputy chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources mineral resources division. What is striking about the spill isnt that it hap-

pened. Rather, it is that theres nothing being done to clean the site. The state says it has no plans to reprimand driller Ed Byers, the individual behind it. Byers acquired the well about 10 years ago, but Tugend doesnt know how long Byers has been pumping gas from it. To this day, Byers still has not registered the well with the state, Tugend said. And officials say its perfectly legal for hundreds of wells across the state to spew liquid drilling waste just like the oily liquid spewing onto Seitzs property. Theres an exemption Im not going to say I agree with it or not, but its the law, Tugend said. The dumping on Seitzs property reflects a dirty truth about gas drilling: Its cheaper and often far easier to dump fluids instead of paying for proper disposal. The waste, called brine, is extremely salty, and can contain arsenic, strontium and other pollutants. Eight months have passed since Seitz notified state authorities in March that the well was polluting his property and local waterways. The mess still has not been cleaned up, he said. You can walk in the soil next to the creek and crude will ooze out of it to this day, he says. Seitz hasnt heard from inspectors in six months, he said. Records show that inspectors from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources made six trips to his property, the last of which was June 30, 2010. They issued nine citations in early March 2010, including

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two for failing to have a working dike. Despite the well not being registered in his name, Byers received the violation notices, Tugend said. State regulators, who draw their salaries from fees paid by the industry, levied no fine against the independent well operator, Ed Byers, who declined to comment. However, his attorney, Richard Yoss, suggested that even though Byers was drawing gas from the well and releasing waste fluids, he may not have been responsible for any pollution because the well wasnt registered in his name. There was a real question as to the ownership of the well, Yoss said. Tugend, the state official, says the pollution at the site wasnt significant enough to trigger a fine or require replacing the smelly soil. He says that under Ohio law, hundreds of wells like the one on Seitzs property are allowed to dispose of waste fluids as long as theyre not too close to waterways. Yoss, the attorney, echoed this point and disputed Seitzs claim that well fluids were being released directly into a creek. These liquids are supposed to be innocuous except for their high salt concentrations, says Tugend, the state official. But Seitz claims the mixture also included significant amounts of oil residue. Soil testing commissioned by the state showed elevated levels of harmful chemicals, including barium present at 45 times above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards. Ingesting high levels of barium can cause muscle weakness and kidney damage, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The testing also showed strontium at 54 times the EPA drinking water limit and chloride almost 350

times above the agencys suggested drinking water guidelines. Months after the contamination was brought to investigators attention, a tank holding more of the waste fluids still stands feet from the creek, Seitz says. Tugend says he has no authority to force the drilling equipment to be moved away from the creek. Without prodding, little is likely to change, Seitz said. If no one comes back to smack their hand, why should they pay a fine or clean up? Whats the point? They give out these notices of violation and thats the end of it, Seitz said. Some well drillers echo Seitzs point. Jim McCartney, who has more than 20 years experience drilling for oil and gas in Ohio, says well drillers take advantage of lax government oversight. While drilling in urban areas around Cleveland, McCartney says he saw gas companies dump large quantities of toxic materials into municipal sewer systems and other evidence of a flat-out disregard for permit rules. Tugend, the Ohio official, admits that although there are bookkeeping requirements for disposing of waste, such as records kept by the companies that haul away fluids for disposal, theres nothing to keep well operators from fudging their books about how much waste they produce in the first place. Devoting the manpower to oversee all waste would be prohibitive, he said. There is a bit of an honor system, Tugend said. I cant tell you someones not dumping fluid right now. Its a big state. But he added that he thinks repeat offenders would eventually get caught. In the oil patch its hard to keep much of a secret, Tugend said. WINTER 2010 17


Shoddy well construction tied to water pollution

By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service

Shoddy well construction is allowing contaminated fluids to infiltrate water sources near natural gas drilling sites around the country, say regulators, engineers and industry insiders. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking the process of extracting natural gas from underground rock formations by punching them open with millions of gallons of toxic fluid has come under intense scrutiny for allegedly polluting drinking water. As cases crop up of fouled water near frack wells around the nation, the natural gas industry and some regulators maintain that fracking is not to blame. Rather, they argue that the real culprit in cases of contamination is poorly constructed wells, built by the drilling companies or subcontractors. A wall of cement is supposed to serve as an outer layer of the well, protecting the water table from the fluids and natural gas flowing within the well. Seeping through faulty cement, fracking advocates say, is the most plausible way that toxic fluids could infiltrate the water table. But critics of the procedure contend that the tainted liquids reach water by percolating up through thousands of feet of rock. Regulators that support frack drilling admit that

theres been contamination near the wells, but say its not from frack fluids migrating upward through the thousands of feet of earth. We would never say that there arent water contamination problems in the oil field, says Mike Paque, executive director of the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit group that coordinates state ground water regulatory agencies. The thing that is causing the miscommunication is that people are all talking about the singular act of hydraulic fracturing at 8,000 or 9,000 or 10,000 or 11,000 feet down. If you look at that explosion down there, that hasnt caused a problem on the surface. And thats a fact. Nobody can find anything. If there was, we would have to enforce it. Paque and others point to a home that exploded in the Cleveland suburbs in December 2007 as an example of contamination from shoddy well construction. The house in Bainbridge Township was rocked after gas escaped from a nearby frack well. No one was injured. State investigators determined that the release contaminated 23 water sources, but found no evidence pollutants reached groundwater, according to a 2008 state report on the incident. That investigation blamed the catastrophe on a shoddy cement job, poor ventilation and fracking.

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Surface casing Cement is poured down well...



Surface casing


Surface casing


Water Annulus

When done properly, the cement should create a barrier between the surface casing and the aquifer.


Water Annulus

If the cement is diverted, the aquifer loses a crucial layer of protection from toxic uids.



Cement is pushed through the casing into the annulus.

Source: Lionel Milberger

Cement escapes leaving a gap between casing and water.

SHNS graphic by John Bruce

Industry insiders say bad cement jobs are common. I dont believe that anyone really actually knows just how good the cement is at any given point in a well, said James McCartney, who has more than two decades experience drilling wells in Ohio and Pennsylvania and has emerged as a forceful critic of the industry. The Bainbridge Township well driller, Ohio Valley Energy, commissioned tests that showed its ce-

ment job was insufficient, but decided to frack the well anyway, according to the 2008 Ohio report. Paque, of the water protection group, admits that the faulty wells linked with water contamination wouldnt have had the opportunity to do damage in general had it not been for the fracking technology that made those wells feasible. If one is bad and you dont do the other, its a non issue, Paque said. Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural
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Resources Defense Council and a fracking opponent, deputy chief of the Division of Mineral Resources has compiled a list of 31 cases where hydraulic fractur- Management in Ohios Department of Natural Reing is a suspected, though not proven, cause of drink- sources, says that some 85 percent of wells drilled in ing water contamination. Her list includes suspected Ohio have an inspector on-site during the cementing incidents in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, New stage. To further address this concern, wells are tested York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, West Vir- to reveal the integrity of the cement work, he said. ginia and Wyoming. In the Bainbridge Township home explosion, a In those cases, investigators usually havent thor- state inspector was on site for some of the cement work, oughly investigated the extent to which fracking weak- and had no knowledge of the problems until after the ens wells or exacerbates bad cement jobs, Mall said. All sides agree that proper We have some inspectors out there that grew cementing is crucial. The cement up in the oil field, worked in the oil field and barrier is the outermost layer of know what theyre doing. And then we have the well, reinforcing the inner some that dont. rungs of metal tubing and ensuring that theres no underground Mike Coyer, Black Swamp Oil Field Services discharge. When installed properly, cement is supposed to adhere to the sides of the well explosion, according to Tugend. creating a crucial layer of protection between the drillIndustry insiders say state authorities arent doing ing well and the water table. But a variety of factors an adequate job. Just because investigators are showing can compromise this barrier. Those include the use of up and running tests doesnt mean they know what inferior materials and unanticipated cement shortages, theyre doing. caused if the material gets lost by flowing into unexMike Coyer, owner of Black Swamp Oil Field Serpected underground gaps, experts say. vices, which maintains, plugs and cleans gas and oil Whistleblowers say these protective cement barri- wells in Portage, Ohio, said oversight is uneven. Many ers are often deficient or partially missing and that inspectors have no idea what to look for, Coyer said. more effective oversight should be placed on well drillTheres a lack of experience. We have some ining operations. spectors out there that grew up in the oil field, worked What is essential are knowledgeable, on-site regu- the oil field and know what theyre doing. And then lators who can ensure the cement casing is being in- we have some that dont, Coyer said, adding that stalled properly, industry officials and regulators agree. some of the substandard practices he sees alarm him. States say theyre doing just that. Tom Tugend, Some things scare me.

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Making news around America









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WINTER 2010 23


Fracking industry, opponents make political contributions

The watchdog group reports that American Crossroads has received a $1 million donation from Trevor Rees-Jones, president and CEO of Dallas-based Chief The natural gas industrys response to the threat of Oil and Gas, a drilling company that is acmore regulation of a controversial methtively fracking in the Marcellus Shale. Thats od of mining has been to fight back an underground rock formation stretching with their pocketbooks. from New York to West Virginia rich in natIn lead-up to the Nov. 2 election for ural gas and swarming with frack drillU.S. Congress, companies with a stake ing activity. in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, In recent years, Hinchey has fought to contributed money to try to oust critics increase oversight of frack wells. After the of the technique, which uses millions U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in of gallons of toxic fluids to smash open 2005 lost authority to regulate the pracunderground rock formations encasing Hinchey: Sponsored tice under the Safe Drinking Water Act, natural gas. legislation to return Hinchey co-sponsored House legislation Fracking became exempt from the fracking oversight last year to return oversight to the EPA, and federal Safe Drinking Water Act under to the EPA. to force drilling companies to disclose the the Energy Policy Act of 2005, but Capichemicals they use during frack drilling. tol Hill lawmakers have since tried unsuccessfully That legislation never made it out of committee. to end the exemption. After the ads attacking Hinchey began, an antiTo fight the prospect of more oversight, American fracking group, called Frack Action USA PAC, formed Crossroads a so-called super political action com- just two weeks before the election to solicit donations mittee that can collect and spend unlimited cash to try and defend Hinchey. The group raised $35,000 for ad to sway elections this fall spent over $533,000 on buys in the district, according to Susan Zimet, execuTV ads assailing Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., ac- tive director of the group. cording to, a nonpartisan group that Despite the efforts by American Crossroads, tracks the influence of money in politics. Hinchey was re-elected.
By ISAAC WOLF Scripps Howard News Service

24 WINTER 2010