Science: Groundwater pollution in less than 10 years.

A recent peer-reviewed study concludes that fracking could allow contaminants to travel from deep shale 'to aquifers in less than 10 years'. The author recommends that "The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing requires that monitoring systems be employed to track the movement of contaminants and that gas wells have a reasonable offset from faults." Neither of these steps is currently being taken, or even contemplated, as far as we know.

[News reports about this study have appeared in ProPublica and Bloomberg, among other places. The full technical paper, Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers, by Tom Myers, is available by paid subscription only, from the Wiley Online Library, although the abstract is accessible without charge.]

Image credit: Art by Gloria Betlem (

The fracking industry likes to point to "thousands of feet of solid rock," between our life-sustaining aquifers and the gas-bearing shale, to assure us that no 'bad stuff' can reach us -- while ignoring the obvious fact that they're drilling through and fracturing that same rock to extract their 'good stuff'. (At the same time, responsible analysts point to the more likely contamination routes nearer the surface: incidental spills, failure of casings and concrete, orphan wells, etc.)

Now Dr. Tom Myers has modeled how those other deep geologic contamination routes, the ones that 'can't happen,' in fact can happen. He notes that, in an undisturbed (pre-fracked) geologic formation, "transport could require up to tens of thousands of years to move contaminants to the surface", but finds that "fracking the shale could reduce that transport time to tens or hundreds of years." Bad enough; but he goes on: "Faults or fracture zones, as found throughout the Marcellus shale region, could reduce the travel time further."

I'm not a geologist, but that makes a sort of basic sense to me. Of course, if your livelihood depends on fracking -- or even if only your lifestyle does -- you may already be saying "Yeah, so, 'could, could, could'! We'd see it if it happened, and we don't see it. It isn't happening. Case closed."

But Myers' model also takes account of the 'system dynamics' -- that is, that it takes time for cracks to open and to spread through the earth. Thus his conclusion, "The overall system requires from 3 to 6 years to reach a new equilibrium reflecting the significant changes caused by fracking the shale, which could allow ... transport to aquifers in less than 10 years."

So we're now living in a scary interval of suspense: we may have already caused enough damage to bring on horrible consequences, but we haven't watched long enough to see what we've done. Meanwhile, we continue to inflict more damage.

My only quibbles with Dr. Myers come from the final sentence of his abstract: The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing requires that monitoring systems be employed to track the movement of contaminants and that gas wells have a reasonable offset from faults.

I wonder:

  • If we build such 'monitoring systems' -- and we aren't building any -- what will we do when their bells begin to ring? We have no way to close those new underground contamination routes that we created years ago. Or, does the 'monitoring system' merely give us enough lead-time to hunt for other sources of water? How does that help us?
  • Do we know where the 'faults' are (from which gas wells should 'have a reasonable offset')? And how will people who might know -- say, the geologists in the fracking industry -- tell the rest of us of where their employers shouldn't be drilling?

Unfortunately, although more 'science' may strengthen our convictions, the essential issue remains what it has been since natural gas fracking began: We know; how will we act on our knowledge?

This is one reason - We proposed Citizens Groundwater Database

As the science is reviewed - it is clear that documenting existing conditions and tracking change is critical. This is why we developed the Citizens Groundwater and Surfacewater Database and other programs to assist private well owners for FREE. This program is NOT Funded by anyone but me and no foundation monies, gas company money, or PR firm monies are used.

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Brian Oram, PG