Millions of Americans rely on water wells for their drinking water supplies. Yet well water ranges from extremely pure to contaminated, depending on where you live. With a rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling from New York to California, dangerous chemicals associated with natural gas drilling are showing up in well water.
New methods of drilling for natural gas involve injecting potentially toxic chemicals into the ground to free up gas deposits. Those chemicals can easily seep into the underground pools of water that many city and residential wells tap for water supplies.
Corporations have been drilling for natural gas for decades with little environmental impact. With the constant demand for natural gas, we’ve used up most of the easy to reach gas fields that exist down in the earth. Today, gas drilling companies are using ever more complicated techniques to extract deeper and smaller pockets of natural gas.
The most popular method of obtaining natural gas is called “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” where a mix of water and secret chemicals are injected deep into the earth under pressure to fracture rock formations and release the natural gas confined within them. Nine out of ten natural gas wells today use this method.
Hundreds of wells are pierced for gas, and though the gas deposits may be far deeper than the water you tap for your home well, the gas well may pass through the aquifer your water comes from. Each gas well uses anywhere from 50,000 to 350,000 gallons of water filled with chemicals to break up deep shale (a kind of rock). That polluted water can enter your well water, and many communities have detected high levels of chemical and oil pollution in their water as a result of “fracking.”
When the drillers are finished with the chemical slurry, they sometimes store it in pools on the ground. These pools can also seep or percolate into the ground water.
The gas companies keep the chemicals they use secret from the government and from the public, claiming that the names of the chemicals are “trade secrets.” Lawyers from organizations like Earth Justice say this secrecy may be an effort to avoid liability from lawsuits if people’s health is harmed by polluted well water. Up to 300 chemicals are used for fracking and researchers have found 65 of them that are hazardous including the carcinogen benzene which has been found in rural wells in Wyoming.
How Can you Protect Yourself and your Family?
Unfortunately, both state and federal efforts to protect drinking water supplies are falling short. The Environmental Protection Agency is behind in its efforts to study and regulate up to 60,000 chemicals found in drinking water supplies today.
The industry worked with the Bush administration in 2004 to exempt fracking from regulation by some environmental laws covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Congress may address this issue in the future.
For these reasons, people cannot count on the government to prevent ground water pollution in places like Pennsylvania, New York, the upper Midwest, and all the western states. We must purify our water supplies whether they come from a municipal source or a private well.