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US: EPA finds groundwater contaminants near 'fracking' sites (11/01/10)

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for the first time found contaminants in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling operations, increasing concern that a gas-extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, could be endangering the health of those living near drilling rigs.

The EPA found chemicals including arsenic, copper, vanadium and adamantanes, which can cause illnesses including cancer, kidney failure, anaemia and fertility problems, in water from 11 out of 39 wells tested around the Wyoming town of Pavillion in March and May last year.

The report says a broad range of sources are being investigated, including agricultural activity, but noted gas drilling as a potential cause. Fracking injects fluids and sand at high pressure into rock formations to break up the rock and release gas trapped inside.

The gas industry says it is impossible for fracturing fluids to enter groundwater. The case was difficult for the EPA to investigate as the identity of the chemicals used in fracking are protected as trade secrets and the EPA does not have the authority to investigate the process because of an exemption under the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

Instead, scientists had to look for spikes of unknown compounds and check these against their massive database of substances for matches.

However, under the Superfund programme the agency has extra authority to investigate the pollution reports including the right to subpoena the trade secret information if it needs to.

The discovery of adamantanes and another substance known to be used in fracturing fluids means it is likely this power will be used to force the gas producer, EnCana, to surrender a list of chemicals, and further sampling will be undertaken using that list as the basis for the investigation.
Lis Stedman