Natural Gas Drilling Poses Toxic Threat to America's Drinking Water

For Immediate Release

Washington, DC - Toxic chemicals used in natural gas drilling could pose a threat to water quality near the nearly 500,000 gas wells nationwide according to a report released today by Environment America. The report, Toxic Chemicals on Tap: How Gas Drilling Threatens Drinking Water, details how the chemicals in gas drilling could endanger clean water in the United States. 

“Americans need to be positive that there are no toxic chemicals on tap,” said Michael Berkowitz of Environment America. “Drilling for natural gas should not come at the expense of our drinking water,” he said.

To extract natural gas, drillers often inject a toxic mix of fluids into the ground to create fractures which allow natural gas to flow to the surface. This process can force toxic substances already underground into drinking water. Some of the pollutant laden fluids drillers inject remain underground, and can also end up contaminating water supplies. 

The fluids recovered by drillers can contaminate water as well. The recovered fluids are frequently stored in open-air pits, which have the potential to leak or flood, and can overwhelm local water treatment facilities. Also, the amount of water needed for the process- often millions of gallons- may drain local watersheds. In some cases, it has caused streams to run dry. 

Due in part to a 2005 exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA cannot fully regulate gas drilling. Moreover, the federal government does not require drillers to publicly disclose the fluids they use in some of their processes and only 5 states out of 32 states with gas drilling require public disclosure. The report includes data collected in those states that require drillers to disclose the chemicals used in the process and from other sources. 

“The list of chemicals known to be used in gas drilling, which could contaminate our drinking water from a leak or spill is frightening. Many, in very low concentrations are known to cause cancers, disrupt endocrine and reproductive function, or damage organs including the central nervous system. And, they will be very hard to clean up” said Dr. Cathey Eisner Falvo of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Even minute concentrations in drinking water can cause problems with growth and development starting in the womb”.

“Some states require disclosure of the chemicals used in drilling, but other citizens aren’t so lucky,” said Berkowitz. “Citizens across the country have a right to know what could be threatening our drinking water,” he added.  

Some are hoping natural gas will gain prominence as part of our energy mix, but natural gas still emits a significant amount of global warming pollution.

“Switching from one dirty fossil fuel to another must not come at the cost of clean water,” Berkowitz said.

A recent case of well contamination in the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming illustrates this potential hazard. Residents discovered that their wells contained benzene and other chemicals associated with gas drilling at levels well over the legal limit. The EPA is investigating the role gas drilling played in contaminating those wells.

Environment America asks that drillers be required to disclose the chemicals they use, as well as where and how much they use them. The group also calls for gas drillers to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives. 

The group said that the drilling process needs improved monitoring, in order to better catch gas or chemical leakage, improved disposal methods for recovered drilling fluids, and assurance that drillers are not operating in locations that may lead to the contamination of drinking water.

Americans have a right to know what chemicals nearby drillers inject,” said Berkowitz.

“We need to protect our taps from this threat,” he said. He added, “That means we need to make sure drillers employ the best practices available, and that we hold them accountable for their mistakes. We should do everything we can to protect our drinking water.”