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West Virginia well pollution cited in drilling debate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the growing debate over the nation's gas drilling boom, one refrain from the industry has been a constant: There's never been a case where fracturing of rock to break loose gas reserves — known as fracking — has contaminated residential drinking water supplies.

But now, West Virginia cases are being cited in an effort to disprove that, and to argue that future such contamination should be a major concern for state and federal regulators.

On Wednesday, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group released a detailed report of a year-long investigation into pollution of a Jackson County family's drinking water well by a fracking operation in the early 1980s.

In 1982, Ravenswood-based Kaiser Exploration and Mining Co. drilled a well on the property of James Parsons. Using a mixture of water, nitrogen and sand, the company fractured the well, which reached down 4,500 feet into the Devonian Brown Shale formation.

A year and a half later, pollution turned up in the Parsons' well, which was drilled about 400 feet down and located just less than two football fields away from the gas drilling site.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators concluded that "residual fracturing fluid migrated" into the drinking water well.

"Dark and light gelatinous material (fracturing fluid) was found, along with white fibers," the EPA said. "Analysis showed the water to contain high levels of fluorine, sodium, iron and manganese."

Health officials recommended the family find an alternative source of water. Parsons sued the company and reached a confidential settlement.

Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, found details of the Parsons' well case in a long-forgotten 1987 EPA report to Congress. Based on a review of other documents in the case, Horwitt says in a report called "Cracks in the Facade" that fracking fluid likely migrated into the Parsons' well from old abandoned gas wells deep underground.

"There is a lot of evidence that EPA got it right and that this was indeed a case of hydraulic fracturing contamination of groundwater," Horwitt said.

The Environmental Working Group report also outlines two more recent cases in Jackson County in which residents alleged gas drilling and fracking had damaged their water supplies.

"During the fracturing process," EPA said in its report, "fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well. When this happens, the water well can be permanently damaged and a new well must be drilled or an alternative source of drinking water found."

The 1987 EPA report was featured in a story posted online Wednesday by The New York Times, which said it learned of the document from a former agency contractor who wrote it.

The EPA report strongly suggested other contamination cases existed, but said such situations were nearly impossible to document because companies insist on confidential settlements to resolve landowner complaints or lawsuits.

"In some cases, even the records of well-publicized damage incidents are almost entirely unavailable for review," the EPA report said. "In addition to concealing the nature and size of any settlement entered into between the parties, [confidentiality] curtails access to scientific and administrative documentation of the incident."

In its report, the Environmental Working Group noted a letter to the EPA from the American Petroleum Institute that called the EPA study "inaccurate" and "careless," but did not specifically dispute the conclusions about the Parsons well.

Instead, the industry group said the incident "was the result of equipment failure or accident" during the fracking process.

Citing state records, Horwitt's report said that a West Virginia oil and gas inspector visited the Jackson County site three years after it was drilled and found the casing and cement to be in compliance with state standards. State records did not indicate any prior inspections of the casing and cement.

After the contamination occurred, a different Office of Oil and Gas engineer wrote to Parsons that the drilling could have been the cause, but that it wasn't up to his agency to "determine fault or liabilities in such a matter." Later, Ted Streit, then deputy director of the oil and gas agency, implemented tougher requirements for cementing oil and gas wells in the area.

Kim Lawrence, executive director of the gas industry campaign Energize West Virginia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Dave McMahon, a Charleston lawyer who works with the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, recently posted an item on the group's website warning of possible problems when new drilling occurs near old gas wells.

"If you have that situation, be sure and comment on that when you comment on the well permit and ask either that the new well not be drilled or that the existing nearby wells be plugged, particularly the very old shallow wells," McMahon wrote. "This is especially important for the new horizontal wells that spread frack fluid over hundreds and hundreds of acres."

Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, following an EPA study that found little risk to water supplies. Neither Congress nor that EPA study mentioned the agency's 1987 findings. The EPA is currently conducting a new study of fracking's impact on water supplies.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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