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Study finds no groundwater contamination from fracking, but industry not off the hook

DURHAM, N.C. — Research  from a team at Duke University finds ground water contamination from fracking of gas wells is minimal in West Virginia.

“We did not find any evidence of groundwater contamination from shale gas development,” said Dr. Avner Vengosh who headed the eight year study.

The team conducted the comprehensive research across the country and included more than 100 water wells in Doddridge and Tyler Counties in West Virginia.   Speaking on MetroNews Talkline Wednesday, Vengosh explained they had a high degree of confidence in their findings.

“The fact we’re feeling confident it’s not coming from shale gas is that we conducted measurements at about 20 wells prior to any installation of shale gas wells,” he explained. “So we have really good baseline of information and we conducted really extensive analysis.”

The finds seem to back up the standard industry claim fracking posed no threat to well water contamination.  However, many still have the problem of methane or saline in their water wells.  Vengosh said they were able to come up with an explanation.

“One of our findings is naturally occurring and saline ground water is pretty prevalent in this area,” he said. “From the point  of view of a homeowner, you don’t care if it’s coming from fracking or naturally occurring, you have a problem with your well.”

But the same research which seemed to exonerate the industry’s use of fracking in natural gas production didn’t leave them blameless.   Management of fracking waste is identified in the same study as a serious problem and a repeated source of surface water contamination.

“We found there have been several spills causing surface water contamination,” he said. “We used this same assembly of chemical forensic tools to confirm those spills are indeed coming from frack water.”

Dr. Vengosh said it’s not uncommon for the industry to deny the spills were the source of contamination and often blamed it on the region’s long history of mining or conventional gas development.  However, the Duke survey was able to make the case without a question the spills are critical.

“The tools clearly showed several of the spills discovered in recent years are indeed from fracking wells and not from the legacy of previous activity,”  he explained.

The survey revealed the problems at all levels of the process.  Several spills happened at the well pad while others were from waste stored at injection well sites.

“Management of the waste water is the weakest part of shale gas development in the area,” Vengosh said. “Once the wastewater comes out managing them correctly is really a major challenge.  Even a small volume of that leaking into the environment could cause a huge impact.”

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