Shaky Ground (Part 2 in a series on fracking)

By Jonathan Barnes

Because of the Feb. 27 quake and others in the area around Greenbrier, Sam Lane, a 29-year-old electronics store manager, started looking into the possible connection between fracking and earthquakes. He did his own stud

y of earthquake data and three Arkansas injection wells not far from his hometown. One of the wells had an identical pattern as the earthquakes and a second showed a strong correlation between injection occurrences and earthquakes. Experts aren’t sure if the wastewater is putting pressure on the fault, or if it is getting into the fault, Lane said.

Scientists haven’t proven a link between fracking and the 5.6 Richter earthquake that rocked the area east of Oklahoma City in early November, but some are suspicious.

“Seismicity in that region has increased dramatically. It really has skyrocketed,” said Arthur McGarr, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA. “If the Oklahoma earthquake turns out to be from oil or gas action, it likely will be of concern… Where there’s a lot of gas production, there’s been a notable increase in seismic activity.”

In some areas, the drinking water has become a problem. For Ron and Jean Carter, in Dimock, PA, the trouble with their well water began Oct. 26 2008, not long after drilling started at a natural gas well 326 feet from their home. In the beginning, the water problem was determined to be fecal chloroform.

“It was nasty—you couldn’t drink it, cook in it or wash in it. The smell stayed on your buy cialis skin and stayed in your clothes if you washed them,” Ron Carter said. Later, Cabot Oil and Gas shut down Carter’s well, due to excessively high levels of methane. But when the Carters leased the mineral rights to their 75 acres to Cabot, there was no talk of tainted water possibilities in this rural area 25 miles from Scranton, PA.

“They told us, ‘We won’t do anything to damage the water,’” Carter said. Even so, the company delivered water to the Carters for a couple years after they closed their water well, but quit doing so Nov. 30. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has been delivering water to them.

The verdict is still out on the water and seismic problems, said Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.

“Fracturing is a safe technology when employed in accordance with sound industry practices and state regulations. Both the water issues in PA and the seismic activity remain under investigation. There are no confirmed cases of contamination directly connected to fracturing operations and incidents

that have occurred are isolated cases largely the result of poorly designed wells or improper management of materials at the surface,” Porter said.

The disposal of wastewater from the fracking process was largely unregulated in Pennsylvania until the state Department of Environmental Protection on May 17, 2011 requested that drillers report manifests of where all the wastewater was going. Some of it was being treated by municipal sewage authorities and discharged into the rivers. In April, the state DEP asked drillers and treatment facilities to stop that practice, which had been going on since 2007.

Jill Kriesky, senior project coordinator for the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said her organization is concerned that the natural gas extraction process be done in a way that is safe for the water. Higher levels of bromides and other contaminants, some cancer-causing, have been detected in area waters—a development Pitt GSPH graduate student Kyle Ferrar is studying.

“We’re seeing increasing levels of bromides and it becomes an issue for water treatment plants,” which often treat such water with chlorine, Ferrar said. “When they’re treated with chlorine, [bromides] create disinfectant bioproducts which are carcinogens, and toxic chemicals.”

Complicating matters is the fact that, after being discharged into Pittsburgh-area rivers, bromides and other carcinogens stay in the sediment of the river. They also are absorbed and eaten by fish, including small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish, compounding the toxicity

in the larger fish. Drillers in Western Pennsylvania were disposing of fracking wastewater at municipal sewage facilities such as the one in McKeesport since 2007, until they voluntarily stopped doing so last year.


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About Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes is an award-winning Pittsburgh freelance writer who has written thousands of newspaper, magazine, and news service stories. He is a longtime correspondent for Reuters and Engineering News-Record, and a stringer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has contributed to Fortune, The New York Times, New York Daily News, Newsday and other publications. His personal essays have been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ENR, in magazines, journals and on his blog, Barnestormin: