Frac Tracers

Baseline Water Testing is Critical to Proving Contamination from Fracking

(Republished blog from December 29, 2019)

The news out of Wyoming last Monday didn’t surprise anyone, at least not those of us who have closely followed water contamination cases near fracking. We’ve seen too many investigations, and court cases, come and go. Mostly go.

Corporations typically clean-up their worst cases by agreeing to monetary fines, without admitting any guilt. Sort of like posting bail without going to jail, while also maintaining a “clean” record. In the most damning civil lawsuits, everything is hushed with non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) — commonly known as ‘gag orders.’

Getting back to the investigation of contaminated water wells in Wyoming by that state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), one of the Key Findings, announced on December 23, 2019 (Merry fracking Christmas!) stands out like a sore thumb:

“Limited baseline water quality data, predating development of the Pavillion Gas Field hinders reaching firm conclusions on causes and effects of reported water quality changes.” Source

The takeaway is that it’s really tough to prove water contamination without good baseline testing, which needs to be done before drilling and fracking. In some states, there are certain assumptions made when water quality changes within a certain radius and time period of gas production activities, but we’ve often seen free water replacement get cut-off over time, for one reason or another.

Image: This insulated water buffalo appeared next to a springhouse shortly after fracking of wells inside Cross Creek County Park. Who would want “city water” out of a plastic tank in place of quality spring or well water? One local farmer lost 3 good sources of water on his farm following gas production there.

How many times have we heard of water well contamination where the water quality was fine until gas production activities occurred nearby? Too many. Some farmers have stepped into the public arena, even travelling long distances, to have their voices heard. Here’s one such farmer from Wyoming:

Video description: “This is an 8 minute cut of Wyoming rancher John Fenton’s presentation at Casino, northern NSW Australia on 25 Feb 2014. John has a terrible story to tell about the effects of invasive gasfields on his property and family and explains how to avoid the same thing happening to you and your community.”

In cases where drillers perform pre-drill water testing, it’s best if water well owners have a “split sample” water test done, where their water lab grabs their own sample at the same time as the production company lab. This helps circumvent any “monkeying around” with test results. Testing isn’t cheap, costing $1,000 – $2,000, or even more.

Public Herald continues to uncover disturbing facts in Pennsylvania, reaching far beyond contaminated water wells, in this January 23, 2017 report:

Records of Misconduct Found Inside Pa. Drinking Water Investigations
After a three-year investigation in Pennsylvania, Public Herald has uncovered evidence of widespread and systemic impacts related to “fracking,” a controversial oil and gas technology. Ending over a decade of suppression by the state, this evidence is now available to the public for the first time. In 2011, Public Herald’s first file request to DEP for complaints never produced a single document, and we learned that complaints were being held as ‘confidential.’ When asked why, an attorney from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office explained that Deputy Secretary Scott Perry didn’t want complaints to ‘cause alarm.’” After pushing through DEP’s resistance to disclose these records, our team was able to conduct its first file review for complaints in the spring of 2013. Three years later, after more than 50 file reviews, Public Herald has scanned records for 6,819 complaint cases.


So then, back to the title of this blog, “Frac Tracers.” Imagine if every fracker had to use a specific chemical fingerprint in their frac fluids, identifying them as accurately as DNA. Fantastic idea! It should be required everywhere, but it’s not. Sadly, we’re still back on square one, trying to have frac chemicals fully identified with “CAS numbers” instead of being hidden under “Proprietary” classifications.

In 2014, Stephanie Kurose from the American University Washington College of Law wrote:

Requiring the Use of Tracers in Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid to Trace Alleged Contamination
“Tracers” are harmless chemicals that make the fluids used in drilling every gas well individually identifiable, thus making it easier to prove the source of any water contamination in the drilling area. The particles used in tracers can bear unique magnetic signatures tailored to each fracking company and has the potential to clarify the debate over whether and how oil and gas extraction damages water supplies. A tiny amount of a tracer would leave unique markers in several million gallons of fracking fluid that if found in an aquifer or local drinking well can be traced back to the drilling operator and its specific leaking well.

Sustainable Development Law & Policy

Image: Industry spin on the harmlessness of fracking often includes “water, sand and one-half percent frac chemicals” which sounds miniscule until you realize that’s a small percentage of millions of gallons of frac fluids.

At least one product known as ‘BaseTrace’ has been developed:

BaseTrace is a breakthrough application of cutting-edge DNA tracer technology for environmental monitoring
BaseTrace produces DNA-based tracers for source-specific fluid tracking applications in multiple industries, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), power generation, wastewater services, and hydrogeology. This technology represents a cutting-edge tracing solution capable of assigning a unique ID to individual fluid sources, providing a powerful tool for leak detection, optimization, and risk assessment.

Research Triangle Park
While it’s extremely important to know exactly what chemicals are being injected into the ground — ones that can eventually affect aquifers, water wells and public sources of drinking water — it’s also a no-brainer to require the fingerprinting of frac fluids so contamination cases can be solved quickly. Enough of the Whodunits.
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