A draft report from United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development has tentatively pointed a finger at hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as a cause of groundwater contamination detected in a number of wells near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. The report, which has not yet undergone outside peer review, is likely to set off alarm bells among both proponents and opponents of fracking, including those in eastern states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Fracking involves the pumping of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into underground rock formation (such as the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and New York) that contains natural gas. The high-pressure fluid creates cracks, or fractures, in the rock, allowing the trapped gas to escape, flow into the well and up to the surface. Eastern states have adopted a variety of policies toward fracking, ranging from Pennsylvania’s enthusiastic promotion to New York’s temporary moratorium and ongoing effort to promulgate protective regulations to New Jersey’s attempted legislative prohibition that was vetoed in favor of a temporary ban.

Whether fracking may contaminate groundwater is a critical question facing policy makers across the country. The EPA study, conducted in response to complaints from residents about objectionable taste and odor problems in water drawn from the drinking water wells after fracking in nearby gas production wells, concludes, based upon both data and complex scientific reasoning, that fracking has caused impacts to ground water in the Pavillion area. EPA also noted certain limitations of the study: its purpose was “to determine the presence, not the extent, of ground water contamination in the formation,” and the results are specific to the Pavillion area, where fracking occurs in and below a drinking water aquifer and near drinking water wells, unlike production practices in many other parts of the country.

The EPA report drew sharp criticism from the company that is conducting fracking in the area, and praise from opponents of fracking. It is certain to cause additional controversy in the months ahead. As we noted in a recent post, fracking also raises complex legal issues.

Paul M. Hauge is an Associate in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department.