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Officials in Three States Pin Water Woes on Gas Drilling

When houses are exploding because of gas seeping into well water, you know you have a serious problem.

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But now an exhaustive examination of the methane problem in western Colorado is offering a strong scientific repudiation of that argument. Released in December by Garfield County, one of the most intensely drilled areas in the nation, the report concludes that gas drilling has degraded water in dozens of water wells[4] (PDF).

The three-year study used sophisticated scientific techniques to match methane from water to the same rock layer where gas companies are drilling -- a mile and a half underground. The scientists didn't determine which gas wells caused the problem or say exactly how the gas reached the water, but they indicated with more clarity than ever before that a system of interconnected natural fractures and faults could stretch from deep underground gas layers to the surface. They called for more research into how the industry's practice of forcefully fracturing those deep layers might increase the risk of contaminants making their way up into an aquifer.

"It challenges the view that natural gas, and the suite of hydrocarbons that exist around it, is isolated from water supplies by its extreme depth," said Judith Jordan, the oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, who has worked as a hydrogeologist with DuPont and as a lawyer with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. "It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there ... for over 65 million years."

The Garfield County analysis comes as Congress considers legislation that would toughen environmental oversight of drilling and reverse the exemptions enjoyed by the gas companies. Colorado has already overhauled its own oil and gas regulations, despite stiff resistance from the energy industry. The new rules, which went into effect earlier this month, strengthen protections against, among other things, methane contamination.

Drinking water with methane isn't necessarily harmful. The gas itself isn't toxic -- the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even regulate it -- and it escapes from water quickly, like bubbles in a soda.

But the gas becomes dangerous when it evaporates out of the water and into people's homes, where it can become flammable. It can also suffocate those who breathe it. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as the concentration of gas increases it can cause headaches, then nausea, brain damage and eventually death.

Under Pressure

The carefully documented accident in Ohio in December 2007 offers a step-by-step example of what can happen when drilling goes wrong.

A spark ignited the natural gas that had collected in the basement of Richard and Thelma Payne's suburban Cleveland home, shattering windows, blowing doors 20 feet from their hinges and igniting a small fire in a violent flash. The Paynes were jolted out of bed, and their house lifted clear off the ground.

Fearing another explosion, firefighters evacuated 19 homes in the small town of Bainbridge. Somehow, gas had seeped into the drinking water aquifer and then migrated up through the plumbing.

Gas had shown up in water in this part of Ohio in the past. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigated nearby residents' complaints of "dizziness," "blacking out," "rashes," "swelling of legs" and "elevated blood pressure" related to exposure to methane through bathing, dishwashing and drinking. That study concluded that gas in the area could migrate through underground fractures and said that "combustible gases, including methane, in private well water present an urgent public health hazard."