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Aguilar questions fracking

by Bill Knowles

AGUILAR– There are over 2,400 natural gas and coalbed methane wells in Las Animas County, and Pioneer is working to bring in more.  Each of those wells has been or will be subject to hydraulic fracturing many times before it is shut down.  Pioneer made a presentation at a town council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23 at the Town Hall in Aguilar to respond to concerns of citizens.

    The mayor voiced conerns about effects on the town’s wells,  and other residents stated concerns about produced water seepage from unlined discharge pits into groundwater supplies.  And still others were concerned about the effects of chemicals used in the fracking process on human and environmental health.  Some folks in attendance learned for the first time that the chemical content of fracking fluids are proprietary and will not be divulged by the companies that use the process.

“I had hoped we would be able to have a discussion that would put to rest some of our concerns about what it going on and how that may affect the town’s wells,”  Ellen Larson, Aguilar’s Mayor, said. 

    One of the loudest voices against the use of fracking was Tracy Dahl, a resident in Las Animas County.  Mr. Dahl told the town council that his well had been adversely affected.  “My well, for eight years, produced good clean water.  My family could drink it, we could use it for cooking and bathing.  Then Pioneer started fracking operations next to our property.  After that all we get is brown smelly water that’s good for nothing.”

    Dahl’s complaint is much like those of other families across the country whose wells have been adversely affected by coalbed methane and natural gas drilling operations.  Indeed, recent studies of the fracking process and the chemicals used in the process suggest that these concerns are justified.

    The process of drilling for natural gas and CBM that has developed during the last decade requires chemicals be used throughout the operations to reach and release the gases that are trapped in rock strata or coal seams.  Chemicals are first added to “muds” that are used to drill the bore hole.  Then chemicals are added to increase the density and weight of the fluids used to reduce friction and help with the return of the drill pipe and bit to the surface.

    After drilling is completed, hydraulic fracturing or fracking is done to break up the strata or seams where the gases are trapped, so the gases may flow more easily and in larger volume.  In the operational stage. as much as a million or more gallons of fluids containing toxic chemicals may be used in fracking with one well being fracked 10 or more times.  As many as 30 wells may be operating on each pad.

    The fracking fluids are largely water and silica with a small portion of the solution being comprised of unreported chemicals such as diesel fuels and other chemicals.

    Some of the chemicals are used to make things slicker, to prop open fissures in the strata, to stabilize clay or to breakdown the gellants that are used to carry the proppants needed to hold open fissures in the strata.  Gellants are added near the end of the fracking operations to enhance flowback.

    The percentage of fracking fluids that are returned to the surface during flowback is in dispute with as much as a 50 percent to 90 percent return being quoted in some studies.  However in a series of investigative articles that appeared in ProPublica.org, the amount of return on fracking fluids in drilling operations in New York and Pennsylvania were closer to 30 percent leaving 70 percent of the fluids in the ground.  The discharge is then stored in either lined or unlined storage pits where the possibility of these very toxic chemicals leeching into groundwater supplies has been documented.

    A recent study published Sept. 4, 2010 in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, is one of the few studies conducted that looks at the chemicals being used in “fracking” fluids. The data in the study was gathered by Dr. Theo Colborn of TEDX, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange located in Paonia, CO.

    The data that describes the chemicals used was assembled from the information found in Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDSs and from samples gathered from the Crosby well blowout in Wyoming and from studies conducted by the industry in New Mexico in 2007.  An MSDS accompanies each product used during natural gas operations.

    The TEDX study found that nearly 90 percent of the chemicals used in natural gas operations cause health issues with skin, eye and sensory organs.  Nearly 85 percent cause respiratory health issues and around 75 percent of the chemicals used cause gastrointestinal and liver issues.  Both brain and central nervous system health issues, and cardiovascular and blood health issues were shown to be caused by around 50 percent of the chemicals used.

    A bright spot appeared last month when Wyoming became the first state in the nation to enact regulations forcing energy companies to disclose the compounds they use in fracking.  Apparently, the citizens of Aguilar have legitimate concerns about the impact of CBM and natural gas drilling on human health and on water, one of the most scarce resources in Colorado.