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Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country

There's been warnings for decades that abandoned wells can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface.

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Although Alexander receives royalty payments from two wells on his land, he wishes he had never signed the lease. "I didn't sign it to kill me," he said.

In an internal briefing last year, EPA scientists raised concern that fracking near Pennsylvania's many abandoned wells could threaten groundwater, saying the old wells "may present a risk unique to the hydrofrac process."

This year, as part of its first comprehensive study of hydraulic fracturing, the EPA plans to look at whether abandoned wells might become conduits for fracking fluids.

Lack of Money Thwarts a Fix

More than two decades ago, federal scientists determined that chlorides, or salts, were leaking through abandoned wells and into an aquifer that supplies drinking water to nearly 40,000 people in Fort Knox, Ky.

Mike Unthank, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, said the problem could be solved if a few dozen abandoned wells were plugged. But the bids that Kentucky's Division of Oil and Gas state received were so high that the Fort Knox project alone would deplete its $1.3 million plugging fund.

Marvin Combs, the division's assistant director, said the fund is used to plug 250 to 300 wells a year. At that rate, it will take more than 40 years to work through the nearly 13,000 wells the state has identified so far.

While the Fort Knox wells wait their turn, local water officials are using a pumping system to push fresh water through the aquifer, diluting the chlorides enough to keep them below the federal safe drinking water limit. But the system must be constantly monitored, and just a few missteps or a change in conditions could make the water undrinkable.

Ideally, the bond money that a company must post before drilling would cover the cost of plugging any wells it abandons. But the bonds are often too low. A recent Government Accountability Office review found that the minimum bonding levels for drilling on federal land were set half a century ago and that Interior Department officials haven't adequately reviewed them or raised them when necessary.

"It begs the question, does it truly provide the incentive to operators to do the reclamation? Because that's the whole point of what the bond is," said Anu Mittal, the GAO report's lead author. "Given how many wells are being drilled right now -- in the last decade it has doubled -- it does raise some concerns that if the operators don't reclaim the land like they're supposed to it's creating a huge liability for the federal government."

Some states, including Wyoming, have strengthened their bonding requirements. But Wyoming's oil and gas supervisor, Tom Doll, said that though his agency now requires some of the highest bonds in the nation, it couldn't afford to plug all the wells that would likely be abandoned if the energy market crashed again, as it did when oil prices fell 50 percent in 1986. He said lower natural gas prices have already driven energy companies to close some coal bed methane wells in Wyoming.

John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, said the way states handle today's drilling rush will determine how this boom eventually plays out, especially in the Marcellus Shale, which lies beneath Pennsylvania, New York and parts of six other states.

"I personally think one of the very good things that's coming out of the Marcellus is a whole lot more attention to the problems that were created in the past and the opportunity to do it better this time," he said. "If we don't raise the bonding amounts, we're repeating a mistake."

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