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The headline flew around the globe like wild fire. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published their long-awaited draft fracking drinking water study and concluded: fracking has had no widespread impact on drinking water. But if you’ve had your ear to the ground in fracking communities, something didn’t sit right with the EPA’s takeaway. Though the gas industry claims fracking is safe and doesn’t harm drinking water, that story doesn’t match what many landowners report from the fracking fields.

Fracking well pads are six-acre plus industrial zones that concentrate many gas wells on one location.
Fracking well pads are six-acre plus industrial zones that concentrate many gas wells on one location.

At least in Pennsylvania, the reason for this discrepancy comes down to a singular issue: mismanaged record-keeping and reporting by the Department of the Environment (DEP). Based on 2,309 previously unreported fracking complaints unearthed by the non-profit Public Herald, the public can now peek into 1,275 fracking water complaints from 17 of 40 fracking counties. However, Pennsylvania’s official tally of water contamination is only 271 for all 40 counties.

Contrary to the EPA fracking study’s conclusion, the prevalence of drinking water contamination appears to be much higher than previously reported. Accurate drinking water complaint data is vital to know as Maryland drafts new fracking regulations to potentially welcome the natural gas industry into Western Maryland in 2017.

What is a Contaminated Water Well?

Officially, Pennsylvania reports 271 confirmed cases of water degradation due to unconventional natural gas operations (a.k.a. fracking).

In Pennsylvania, water degradation is when a private water well located within 2,500 feet of a fracking well has been negatively impacted within six months of drilling. According to the DEP, water degradation falls into two camps—reduced water volume or the presence of “constituents” found in higher levels after drilling than before drilling. Constituents can be naturally-occurring, fracking-related chemicals or methane gas than seeps into aquifers and water wells.

Homeowners usually know right away if something’s up with their well water. Their tap water’s clarity or color changes, the water smells gross or the well runs dry. What’s harder for homeowners to self-identify is natural gas (methane) migration because methane gas is odorless. Methane is highly flammable and if present at dissolved levels above 28 mg/L requires immediate remediation or the potential for explosions exists.

Tainted water collected from a private drinking water well in PA near a fracking site.
Tainted water collected from a private drinking water well in PA near a fracking site.

Pennsylvania’s DEP regulates the oil and gas industry and is also the “911 dispatch center” for fracking complaints. DEP’s role is to register citizen fracking complaints, research complaints and conduct water tests if needed. If water well damage is proved to be caused by nearby fracking, DEP notifies the gas driller that they are responsible for providing water replacement. 

Buried in Folders: 1,275 Water Complaints

Prior to Public Herald’s fracking complaints database (an open source project named #fileroom) which was launched in September 2015, the public had little access to Pennsylvania’s fracking water complaints. What was known is that the DEP fracking complaint system was horrendous.

After considerable legal wrangling, the Scranton Times-Tribune obtained 969 determination letters and the newsroom reported in May 2013, “water damage and murky testing methods.”

In May 2014, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General reviewed DEP complaint files and reported eight areas of mishandling with “sloppy record keeping” topping the list. 

When asked if the public’s health was being threatened from fracking water contamination, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General publicly commented, “we can’t say one way or the other because their [DEP] record keeping is so poor.”

After threatening legal action in 2013, Pennsylvania’s DEP offices finally gave Public Herald volunteers access to all fracking complaints.

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