Environment Fracking
Fracking opponents Bradley C Bower/Associated Press

Pro- and anti-fracking advocates clash in Pennsylvania state capital in Harrisburg.

May 05, 2015

Chemical used in fracking found in Pa. drinking water

Industry disputes study that found cancer-causing compound

Saying they used equipment not available in most commercial laboratories, scientists have found traces of a chemical used in fracking the Marcellus Shale in drinking water in northern Pennsylvania's Bradford County.

“This is the first case published with a complete story showing organic compounds attributed to shale gas development found in a homeowner’s well,” Susan Brantley, one of the researchers and a Penn State geoscientist, told the New York Times

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In their report, the scientists said they found trace elements of 2-n-Butoxyethanol, or 2-BE, a chemical compound used in hydraulic fracking (HF) and one known to cause cancer in mice, in the well water of at least one home in Bradford County.

“The most likely explanation of the incident is that stray natural gas and drilling or HF compounds were driven … along shallow to intermediate depth fractures to the aquifer”  that's used as a water source, the report states. “Part of the problem may have been wastewaters from a pit leak reported at the nearest gas well," which had been hydraulically fractured earlier.

“More such incidents must be analyzed and data released publicly so that similar problems can be avoided through [the] use of better management practices,” the report said.

The trace amount wasn’t enough to harm humans, researchers said. Still, the report has become the latest salvo in the ongoing debate over the safety of fracking and whether it will contaminate land and water.

Advocates for the gas industry criticized the report, saying the chemical compound could have come from sources other than fracking.

“2-BE can be an indicator of a lot of things, actually – a fact that the authors concede in the end, though not in the actual report text itself,” wrote Katie Brown, of Energy in Depth, a pro-fracking advocacy group started by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “No, what the researchers bury deep in the supplemental reading packet is the fact that 2-BE is found in hundreds if not thousands of household products, including things as common as Windex and cosmetic products.

“Other likely sources not considered by this study include the discharge of common household chemicals containing 2-BE (and other products) into subsurface septic systems present at these homes. In fact, elevated nitrate levels in some of the samples suggest septic or agricultural impacts may be present.”

Scientists who reviewed the study independently, however, found the research conclusions credible.

According to the Times, Rob Jackson, a Stanford University environmental scientist, reviewed the paper and said it “clearly shows an impact of oil and gas drilling on water quality.”

Victor Heilweil, a hydrogeologist from the University of Utah, also reviewed the study and told the Times the report helps explain “how these contaminants can move relatively long distances from the depth to the drinking well.”