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Texas fracking critics tour the Eagle Ford as complaints of contamination surface

Photo: Micahel Barajas, License: N/A

Micahel Barajas

Toby Frederick, who lives outside Cuero, stands next a well on his property pumping water that reeks of diesel fuel.

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

A natural gas compressor station outside Cuero, one piece of the Eagle Ford buzzing with oil and gas exploration.

Sharon Wilson, an environmental activist who documents complaints of contamination across North Texas for the non profit organization Earthworks, accompanied Tillman on his trip across the Eagle Ford, and said, “What happened in the Barnett Shale? We had very rapid development. They move in and they move in fast. … This is not the same kind of drilling that your grandparents experienced in West Texas.”


For years, industry has insisted that the fracking process is safe and hasn’t been linked to any instances of contaminated groundwater.

But a laundry list of cases test that claim. In Garfield County, Colo., a three-year study detailed methane seepage into water supplies as a result of fracking. Cabot Oil & Gas, a Texas-based company, settled out of court with locals in Dimock, Pa., who complained of contaminated wells and a blowout that shot toxic chemicals into nearby waterways.

Closer to home, Wilson claims 70 percent of Dish residents surveyed complain of respiratory problems since oil and gas moved next door, and researchers have noted “astoundingly high” formaldehyde levels in the Barnett Shale area linked to natural gas exploration — levels high enough to exacerbate that area’s ground-level ozone problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency in December ordered gas company Range Resources to quickly fix methane contamination problems in North Texas’ Parker County, where residents complained of flammable and bubbling drinking water flowing from the tap. Tests showed the presence of cancer-causing benzene and “extremely high levels” of methane, posing an “imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire.” EPA investigators linked the contamination to nearby natural gas drilling.

In March, the RRC cleared the company of all liability, saying nearby well-water drillers had simply penetrated a shallow natural gas field. “We’re still at a place [in Texas] where we’re trying to sort out what’s really going on here,” said Charles Groat, director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at UT Austin who’s leading a comprehensive nine-month study of the fracking process.

“There have been a lot of counter-claims by industry saying, ‘Well, it couldn’t possibly be fracking,’” Groat said. “There clearly are documented problems with shale-gas development. Is it the fracking process? Is it the casing? Is it disposal fluid handling? What is it? … Right now it’s too early to tell.”

Groat plans to roll out preliminary findings from the study, which will look at water and air contamination as well as claims of fracking-related earthquakes, by the end of 2011, he said.

With the recent signing of Texas’ House Bill 3328, the RRC will next year lay out requirements for companies to disclose the toxic chemicals they inject into the ground. Still, environmentalists fear the measure, arguably one of the broadest of its kind, falls short by failing to demand companies reveal all chemicals used, including proprietary recipes exempted from disclosure. Elizabeth Ames Jones, RRC chairwoman, told Bloomberg News early this month, “We won’t be knowing the recipes. That’s sacred ground as far as I’m concerned.”

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