Study shows potentially unhealthy levels of arsenic in water wells across area

 30 August 2014
Editor’s Note:  The article below, from our local newspaper, is one of many that have been in national news recently because of local resistance to fracking. A local vote on fracking is upcoming.  The piece below adds a dimension to the fracking controversy, suggesting that arsenic and heavy metals get into well water because of the severe vibration caused by hydraulic fracturing.  I’ve added an interesting reader’s comment to this article from the Denton Record-Chronicle website, since it address the vibration issue not only as regards fracking but in regard to water contamination on and near military bases as well. — Hardly Waite.

University of Texas at Arlington researchers have unveiled a study that found potentially unhealthy levels of arsenic in water wells scattered throughout North Texas.

The study, conducted last year, involved 100 water wells across the Barnett Shale, 10 of them in Denton County. An 11-member team of UTA scientists found that 30 percent of wells within 1.8 miles of active natural gas drilling showed an increase in heavy metals, including arsenic.

“To find that high of arsenic concentrations was alarming,” said Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, a UTA biochemist. “This is indirect evidence that drilling does affect the water.”

Researchers compared their results with previous water tests conducted in the same area before the Barnett Shale gas boom exploded across the region 10 years ago. They believe the vibration from drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations shakes the pipes in nearby wells, causing arsenic-contaminated rust to fall into fresh water. The scientists referred to those vibrations as “pressure waves from drilling activity.”

Alex Mills, the head of an oil and gas industry trade association, said he doubts the study’s findings.

“If they’re talking about drills shaking it free, that’s a little farfetched,” said Mills, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers in Wichita Falls.

Mills, who has 30 years in the oil and gas industry, said natural gas wells are drilled so deep that vibrations could never make it to much shallower water wells. Even if homes are located within 500 or 600 feet of the drilling site, they wouldn’t feel the vibration of the hydraulic fracturing because of the gas well’s depth, he said.

“I’ve never heard or even came close to hearing that hydraulic fracturing is so vicious, so earth-shattering to shake lose rust from water wells,” he said.

Researchers acknowledged that other factors might have caused the water well contamination, including “hydrogeo chemical changes from lowering of the water table or industrial accidents such as faulty gas well casings.”

According to the UTA study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology journal, “The maximum concentration of arsenic detected in a sample from an active [gas well] extraction area was almost 18 times higher than both the maximum concentration among the nonactive/reference area samples and historical levels from this region.”

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant limit for arsenic is 10 parts per billion. Anything over that is considered unsafe. The UTA team found that 29 out of 90 water wells exceeded the EPA standard. Methanol and ethanol, two chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, were also detected in 29 percent of water samples, according to the study.

Epidemiologists say arsenic, a heavy metal, can threaten people’s health and lead to death.

“Gastrointestinal effects, reno-cardio effects, neurological effects — we could talk for hours about the harmful effects of arsenic,” said Juan Rodriquez, chief epidemiologist at Denton County Health Department.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that ingesting low levels of arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting, decrease in red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels and a sensation of “pins and needles” in the feet.

Arsenic is also a known human carcinogen, according to the Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA.

In 2011, the Texas Railroad Commission reported that 93,000 gas wells have been drilled in Texas since the hydraulic fracturing booms began. More than 15,300 of them are located in the Barnett Shale, which covers Denton, Johnson, Montague, Tarrant and Wise counties. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that more than 15 million Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well.

The UT-Arlington researchers plan more studies to understand the effects of natural gas drilling on water quality.

“It was our very first crack at groundwater in the area,” said Hildenbrand, a research associate at UTA.

Now they’re gathering a larger sample of 500 private water wells, 130 of them in Denton County.

“It’s a polarizing issue,” Hidenbrand said. “Nobody really understands what’s going on.”

Waiting and worrying

Jeffrey and Tracey Schmitt’s water well has been tested as part of the next UTA study. They have been waiting weeks for the test results and worrying about the fate of their well water.

When they built their home in Amyx Ranch, a residential community a few miles outside of Ponder, they never imagined the possibility that their water could be contaminated.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if it comes back positive,” said Tracey Schmitt, who purchased the five acres with her husband.

They built the home as an investment and plan to sell it after their children finish high school. But now all of that could change. If high levels of arsenic are found in their well water, the property might become impossible to sell.

“I’d hate to have to cook with bottled water,” she said.

The Schmitts said they’ve had problems with their water well since drilling it nearly 10 years ago. They reached water at 450 feet, but it tasted bad and discharged a layer of fine sand. They couldn’t afford to drill deeper to reach the next water table, so they bought bottled water to drink and used well water for cooking and showering.

“My husband thought it was because of fracking,” Tracey Schmitt said.

Across the highway from Amyx Ranch, roads lead to Devon Energy Corporation gas well sites. Company signs line the roadway between Denton and Ponder. Devon operates more than 40 wells located in Ponder. The company is one of the biggest operators for extracting gas in the region.

Company spokesman Chip Minty declined to comment on the UTA study because he had not read it.

At Amyx Ranch, the Schmitts are awaiting results of their well test, which researchers say could be a few more weeks.

“I’m so praying the test doesn’t come back positive because we don’t want to retire here,” Tracey Schmitt said.

Comment on the article above by read Lis Amel:

We lived 5 years near a military base reserve that bombs continuously throughout the year. When the temperature was just right during the bombing, our community of neighbors had their windows and driveway’s crack. We were fortunate that our windows never cracked but our costly driveway did. All 32 neighbors had wells and we all had issues with our wells, where one day the well was fine and after heavy overnight bombing practice the well had particles. County water was brought out to 2 cul-de-sacs in an attempt to help those who needed water, because neighbors said their wells suddenly stopped working. Our well was only 30 feet from one neighbor and 40 from a second one. Water taps were installed for each home so we could connect when the well stopped working. Our well had heavy metals detected twice in the first year, but then would settle down and none was detected. We had 3 filter systems installed on our lines just to make sure we were not taking heavy metal showers. The underground bombing for military practice was a suspect as to why the wells suddenly had issues. Every neighbor we had wanted out of there. Now we are in Oklahoma where when the first earthquake hit last fall, we had to ask if they were doing underground bombing in the area, which they do not. We are so tired of living where the ground shakes, that we are now declining to move back to our home state of Texas for retirement. Regardless of how many benefits there are to Veterans there, the water issues, earth shaking and possible sinkholes, have us looking elsewhere.

Source: Denton Record-Chronicle.

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