Officials in Three States Pin Water Woes on Gas Drilling
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Finally, the company shut down the well. But the underlying pressurized gas formation had already been punctured, and its contents were trying to escape. The gas collected inside the well for the next 31 days, until 360 pounds of pressure built against the valve at the top. It was enough, state investigators wrote, to force the gas out of the well bore by any means it could find.
"This overpressurized condition resulted in invasion of natural gas from the annulus of the well into natural fractures in the bedrock below the base of the cemented surface casing," the report states, adding that it was the first time anything like this had been confirmed in Ohio.
Ohio Valley Energy Systems did not return calls for comment on the state's findings.
On Dec. 12, three days before the Paynes' house exploded, methane was detected in the Bainbridge Police Department's water well, 4,700 feet from the gas well in question. Two days later, nearby residents reported sediment in their water and artesian conditions in their wells, meaning the water was spurting out under pressure. By the next morning the gas -- still seeking an outlet -- had forced its way into Richard Payne's basement, where it reached a flammable concentration. All it needed was a spark.
Science Blames Drilling
Dimock resident Norma Fiorentino's drinking water well was a time bomb. On New Year's morning, her well exploded. After the blast, state officials found methane in her drinking water. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)
As regulators in Ohio struggled to reconcile what was happening there, officials in Garfield County, Colo., were waiting for the results of the three-part, three-year study examining the connections between methane leaks and drilling there.
The report is significant because it is among the first to broadly analyze the ability of contaminants to migrate underground in drilling areas, and to find that such contamination was in fact occurring. It examined over 700 methane samples from 292 locations and found that methane, as well as wastewater from the drilling, was making its way into drinking water not as a result of a single accident but on a broader basis.
As the number of gas wells in the area increased from 200 to 1,300 in this decade, the methane levels in nearby water wells increased too. The study found that natural faults and fractures exist in underground formations in Colorado, and that it may be possible for contaminants to travel through them.
Conditions that could be responsible include "vertical upward flow" "along natural open-fracture pathways or pathways such as well-bores or hydraulically-opened fractures," states the section of the report done by S.S. Papadopulos and Associates (PDF), a Maryland-based environmental engineering firm specializing in groundwater hydrology.
The researchers did not conclude that gas and fluids were migrating directly from the deep pockets of gas the industry was extracting. In fact, they said it was more likely that the gas originated from a weakness somewhere along the well's structure. But the discovery of so much natural fracturing, combined with fractures made by the drilling process, raises questions about how all those cracks interact with the well bore and whether they could be exacerbating the groundwater contamination.
"One thing that is most striking is in the area where there are large vertical faults you see a much higher instance of water wells being affected," said Geoffrey Thyne, the hydrogeologist who wrote the report's summary and conclusion (PDF). He is a senior research scientist at the University of Wyoming's Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute , a pro-extraction group dedicated to tapping into hard-to-reach energy reserves.