The Debate: Can the process of hydraulically fracturing underground natural gas wells contaminate groundwater?
Industry Position: There has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing; the process occurs thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers. Therefore, the chemicals used in the fracturing process pose no threat to drinking water.
Opposition Position: It can and has contributed to pollution of underground drinking water sources.
The Data: Previous lawsuits from landowners were settled by the industry and the data kept private for various litigation reasons. A U.S. EPA report now indicates that hydraulic fracturing has been linked to at least one case of drinking water contamination in West Virginia in 1987 and could feasibly contribute to future problems.
Future Obligations: Some improved regulations and protections have been put in place since 1987, but the risk still exists if natural gas drilling is done hastily or if abandoned wells exist nearby. Once pollutants are introduced into underground water aquifers they are very difficult to remove, so significant care and review must be taken if drilling is going to continue. The EPA report further supports the need for increased government and industry transparency across the board. It should also be stated that a large-scale health impact assessment is needed to comprehensively determine the risk that the entire natural gas drilling operation poses to public health.
Compiled by: Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) department, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); and Doctoral Student, GSPH