Fracking Fallout: Is America’s Drinking Water Safe?

Yves here. A predictable outcome of fracking, which is contamination of aquifers, may be happening on a big enough scale to get out of the so-called progressive media into the mainstream. I recall years ago photos of dirty yellow and brown water coming out of taps in parts of Pennsylvania, and even some being able to get ignition when they held a lighter near the water stream, presumably due to high methane concentrations.

I would like to know where in “southern Ohio” the water problems are. Cobb links to an article in Athens County Independent from earlier in the month which also came up in a quick search. lists Athens and Washington counties in southern Ohio as afflicted areas:

Four fracking waste injection wells in Athens County have temporarily suspended operations by order of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which says the wells present an “imminent danger” to health and the environment.

On May 1, ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management ordered the suspension of a Class II injection well in Rome Township on grounds that its operator, Reliable Enterprises LLC, violated an Ohio Administrative Code section that bars operators from contaminating or polluting surface land and surface or subsurface water. In late June, three wells in Torch operated by K&H Partners were suspended on the same grounds.

Applications for new Class II injection wells from both Reliable Enterprises and K&H were denied because of the suspensions. K&H’s application for a fourth well at its $43 million facility in Torch generated controversy when it was proposed in 2018.

Class II wells are used to contain toxic waste from oil and gas production thousands of feet underground. The wells are intended to isolate the waste water, known as brine, from groundwater.

However, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties.

Note that a May article, Ohio Environmentalists, Oil Companies Battle State Over Dumping of Fracking Wastewater, describes fracking water contamination in a different Ohio county, Coshocton County.

By Kurt Cobb, a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Le Monde Diplomatique, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Southern Ohio discovers toxic fracking wastewater migrating from deep injection wells, contaminating local groundwater.
  • Fragmented state-level regulations and undisclosed fracking fluid compositions hinder effective monitoring and risk assessment.
  • Calls grow for stricter regulations and transparency in fracking practices to protect public health and drinking water supplies.

Eleven years ago, I wrote about the how millions of holes drilled deep into American soil were already destined to pollute groundwater across the United States, making many areas uninhabitable to humans who rely on such water. I warned that the so-called shale oil and gas boom would make this problem dramatically worse.

Now that problem has reached the news pages of southern Ohio, and this will likely just be the beginning of coverage of fracking-related damage to the country’s groundwater supplies. (There has been much coverage of studies that suggest such harm is inevitable and likely happening from fracking. But, we are now shifting into the stage where the actual harm will start to be discovered—almost certainly too late to prevent contamination in many cases.)

The main culprit (for now) is not the oil and gas wells themselves, but the injection wells used to dispose of huge volumes of water laced with toxic chemicals that have been injected into wells under great pressure to fracture underground rocks containing oil and natural gas in shale deposits. A lot of that water comes back to the surface and so must be disposed of. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pump it deep underground—many thousands of feet down—where it can supposedly be safely deposited away from the surface and far below drinking water aquifers used by us humans.

The trouble is—as I pointed out in my piece 11 years ago—the injected wastewater doesn’t necessarily stay put. And, that’s the problem in southern Ohio. In the Ohio case, “the [Ohio] Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H [waste injection] wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties.”

This is why a former EPA scientist referenced in my 2012 piece believes that groundwater practically every there is any kind of drilling will become contaminated within the next 100 years as toxic fluids migrate from working and abandoned oil and gas wells and wastewater injection wells into fresh drinking water aquifers.

Part of the problem is the piecemeal regulation of oil and gas operations and wastewater injection. States do the regulation and currently face large and powerful oil and gas companies and the companies that haul their toxic fracking wastewater away. The states have a difficult time monitoring what these companies are dumping, not least of all because the composition of the fluids used to fracture shale oil and gas deposits is considered a trade secret. States cannot easily pry open the files of these companies to find out exactly what is in these fluids.

The fact that companies which use hazardous chemicals that can easily get into the drinking water supply are not obliged to divulge publicly the formulas for the mixtures they inject underground ought to shock the public. But unless Congress fixes some or all of the exemptions from federal disclosure laws enjoyed by the oil and gas industry, the public will continue to be in the dark about the makeup of the waste fluids from oil and gas drilling, especially in shale oil and gas fields, and associated injection of toxic fluids deep into the Earth.

Without crucial information about contaminants which threaten public drinking water supplies, regulators and the public will be shadow-boxing their oil and gas industry foes. My guess is that if companies were obliged to release their fracking formulas and be subject to analysis of the actual fracking fluids and every community was by law informed of this information and its implications for public health, regulation of these practices would be far stricter and some current practices, such as injection of wastes underground, would be banned.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Henry Moon Pie

    But we need the oil!

    Injection wells have long been an issue. The first case I ever presented before the New Mexico Oil and Gas Commission was an application for a salt water disposal permit. As Cobb explains, there’s usually “brine” or salt water down there along with the oil. It comes up with the oil, and then must be disposed of. In the Permian 40 years ago, dry holes or expended wells were used as salt water disposal wells, but the same issues could occur with neighboring oil wells as is happening with drinking water in Ohio. Nearby wells would start producing more water, and that’s an expense to be avoided.

    New Mexico took these contamination concerns seriously when another oil company was complaining. My client, ARCO, was denied its permit because a neighboring independent opposed the permit because of those concerns, and their lawyer destroyed my witness, an older fella about to retire. I learned, and never again let a witness go up without challenging them in my office prior to hearing. And I made an independent operator who wanted to slant drill next to Shell’s water flooded Hobbs Unit look pretty silly. Claiming that the water flood wouldn’t enhance his well’s production was bold but hopeless. They assessed him a 90% penalty.

    It’s all connected down there. If that’s where your water comes from, protect it.

  2. NYMutza

    It seems to me that anyone contemplating having children ought to think once, twice, three times before doing so. In 100 years (likely less) the world we all inhabit is going to be in a hell of a mess and may not be inhabitable for a large potion of humanity. It blows my mind that we (society) continue on this path of destruction with hardly a pause and hardly a care.

    1. ultrapope

      Its no secret that most of people my age (early 30s) aren’t planning to have kids. I don’t think many readers of the mainstream press are aware that most of us of child-rearing age are choosing to remain childless for very real, concrete reasons. This article is a great example of one of those reasons. Fracking was pursued for a combination of short-term economic and geopolitical reasons but its repercussions will be felt for generations to come. And fracking is just one of many ventures our political and economic elites have pursued for short-term gain with little or no concern for long-term ramifications. While I will have to live with the consequences of their actions, I don’t have to bring a child into that future world. So I won’t.

      1. Jme

        Despite the very jarring and dated use of certain slurs in its dialogue, Idiocracy still holds up as more prophecy than fiction…

    2. Zen

      “Anti-natalism” as an ethical choice might be more common amongst “us” in the 20s and 30s reading NC—but on a more broader level, where people can’t even agree that climate change’s a thing and the dream of having a “family” is still a kind of marker of “success?”

  3. Rip Van Winkle

    RE last 3 paragraphs.

    Proprietary trade-secret component not on the label: benzene. Has the EPA figured that one out yet? All you need is a GC-MS, same as 35+ years ago.

    Sort of like determining the contaminants in East Palestine.

    1. LawnDart

      Dick Cheney’s Secret Sauce!

      We need statues of the man outside every cancer-clinic in flyover for patients to throw stones at.

      1. Rip Van Winkle

        I’d like to see him in the lab testing for organics with a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth!

  4. furnace

    Fracking is one of those very clear cut cases of high externalities. It is only viable if you absolutely ignore all the side-effects from extraction (and even then, it’s only passably worthwhile above $50 a barrel, as per investopedia). If the real costs of fracking were added, I’d imagine oil would have to be at astronomical prices for it to break even, given the ruinous damage it causes.

    1. Friendly

      Agree – prices would be much higher especially for natural gas. If you combine the social cost of carbon with carbon dioxide equivalents per barrel of oil and per thousand cubic feet of natural gas you can derive an estimate of the externalities.

    2. Jme

      If the real costs of so many human activities were baked in we’d have a very different world indeed. A better one in many ways I’m willing to say, but we’ll never know.

    3. JR

      Absolutely! Every dollar not spent on remedying the externalities is a dollar of subsidy going to the industry (paid for by those who are hurt by the externalities). Makers, my arse, takers say I. That government is allowing this behavior just shows you … [fill in the blank here].

      Clearly, we need gobsmacking amounts of energy, but allowing externalities like this to to exist means there can be no true cost-based competition amongst various energy sources/technologies.

  5. Jason Boxman

    And quite related: ‘Monster Fracks’ Are Getting Far Bigger. And Far Thirstier.

    Along a parched stretch of La Salle County, Texas, workers last year dug some 700 feet deep into the ground, seeking freshwater. Millions of gallons of it.

    The water wouldn’t supply homes or irrigate farms. It was being used by the petroleum giant BP to frack for fossil fuels. The water would be mixed with sand and toxic chemicals and pumped right back underground — forcing oil and gas from the bedrock.

    It was a reminder that to strike oil in America, you need water. Plenty of it.

    1. BeliTsari

      We’d been averaging 5K-9K’ down & 20K’ out, fracking EIGHT wells per pad. But since winter of 2021 & especially, after we’d baited Russia into Ukraine & blew Nord Stream; everything quietly accelerated; as media, academia & green-washing NFPs grew ominously silent (or magically switched sides?)

      1. mrsyk

        Thanks for the link. That is a very good read. I see on the Google that West Virginia’s State Supreme Court ruled with the farm owners on the Wentz Crowder litigation. I’m curious if that ruling has had any effect on the fracking industry there.

        1. BeliTsari

          I’m betting EQT is quaking in their boots (just KIDDING!) Bet, we can bet who’ll be blamed for 20 acer 10-well pads end up on the wrong fellers’ palacial estate?

          1. mrsyk

            Thanks. The last paragraph of that CBS article gave me a chuckle. A representative from EQT said in a statement last month that since November 2018, a new management team has been in charge of the company, and it has undergone a “cultural transformation.” The company now seeks “to maintain more cooperative relationships with landowners and the residents of the communities in which we operate.”

  6. judy2shoes

    “You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president,” [Obama] said to applause. “That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas that was me, people.”

    Obama: “Suddenly America is the largest oil producer, that was me people … say thank you.”

    Pretty proud of himself, but “thank you” is not what I’d say to him given the chance.

  7. BeliTsari

    As with “our” party’s ongoing war to save Obama’s bridge fuels Ponzi scheme (& everything BAD under Trump, that’s green JOBS under DNC’s Fracking cabal) all that’s changed is specious gullibility, sneeringly brainwashed PMC & media obsequiousness. Like Fettermann & UDP-installed Democrats cut & paste Energy In Depth releases & promulgate, it’s only uppity essentials & death o’ disparity deplorables drinking (breathing, eating) radium-flavored fracking brine & forever chemicals as cement-jobs, annulars & casing failures don’t make it onto HBO or Netflix & WBD/ Comcast blames anti-fracking eco-terrorists on Putin?

  8. Societal Illusions

    “…not obliged to divulge publicly the formulas for the mixtures they inject underground ought to shock the public.” This has been spoken of for ages. Guess the public doesn’t have the lobbying chops of the polluters. Democracy for the win!

    Why are the Naked Capitalist mega themes all the same? The industry doesn’t matter any longer – all of them seem prone to a Government ready and able to serve them rather than protect the public. Words sometimes seem to project a different view, but actions speak so much louder.

    Sustainability and human well-being take a lower priority than corporate profits and lobbying largesse. Government, Media, Academia all working in concert. It’s really quite impressive the total capture that has occurred, and the non-action and near silent grumbling that occurs in various places (here we are!)

    Will it take a complete systemic failure for something different to become a new norm? Or is our fate sealed regardless with each passing day?

    1. mrsyk

      When was the last time that any meaningful legislation was passed that favored the public over corporate interest?
      Note, I’ve asked this once here before and the best we got was the ADA in 1990.

  9. redleg

    I’m going to say this again, being a hydrogeologist specializing in surface water-groundwater interactions with decades of drinking water and pollution remediation experience:


    That’s right, what they inject to frack is irrelevant in regulating fracking since the result is oil, salt, and other nastiness coming out of the ground that by itself is grounds for immediate action for remediation if not contained.
    Injection wells are disposing of what comes out of the fracked wells. Recirculation of injected waste out of old wells means it’s coming out again. Using the principle of joint and several liability, victims (including the public) bring a complaint against everyone involved and let the various defendants/perps sue each other over who is responsible of the oil, the radon, the KCl, etc.

    More importantly, those old wells need to be sealed properly. There are all kinds of ways to compel someone to do that. Personally I’d be thrilled to take on that project, and not merely because of the billables. That’s important work for the greater good.

    I apologize for shouting but this is an important point that nobody but the frackers seem to comprehend.

    1. GramSci

      Thank you. When we were fighting the fracking of the Everglades back ca 2014, this was my major concern. (cf. rip Van Winkle, op cit.. on benzene.)

      The “produced water” that comes up out every oil well is a witches’ brew, stewed in the bowels of the Earth for eons, of radioactivity and a menagerie of aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene that are typically carcinogenic and/or teratogenic.

      A profitable oil well can produce 20 barrels of this ‘produced water’ for every barrel of crude. But thanks to the “Bentsen Amendment” (remember Lloyd B. and Mike Dukakis??), since 1978 the EPA has been largely enjoined from regulating how or where this crap is disposed of.

    2. Friendly

      Re: Use the principle of joint and several liability.

      Agree. A useful variant of joint liability is market share liability -where liability is based on the percent of total production that occurred during the length of time operators were responsible for operating the well.

  10. some guy

    It would be nice to at least stop growing the whole fracking-destroys-groundwater problem by banning fracking everywhere.

    In the meantime, people who wish to avoid frackwater and are in a position to do so might want to look at maps of all the frackable gassy-shale and oily-shale formations in and under the US. Anyone living above such a zone or downstream from it or downplume from it will have it fracked someday if it hasn’t already been fracked.

    Here is a set of images of maps of one such frackable zone . . . the Marcellus Shale Formation under parts of the NorthEastern US.;_ylt=AwrNOA.GORNliYINs.1XNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=marcellus+formation+map&fr=sfp

    Anywhere within this region has either been already fracked or will get fracked unless fracking is forcibly stopped. If you live in Marcellustani Frackistan, or downstream or downplume from it; move to a zone without any frackable shale under it or upstream or up-plume from it.
    If you can’t move to such a place, then you already have the binary choice of either submitting to frackwater or getting sucessfully political enough to get fracking stopped and kept stopped where you live.

    ( Meanwhile, one supposes that “people against fracking” could show some solidarity and support to the involuntary victims of fracking by using as little gas and oil as possible, and if they can target their unavoidable gas and oil purchases away from companies who themselves sell frack-gas and frack-oil, that is even better; at least as a gesture).

  11. Climate Matters

    I live in Athens County Ohio. People have worked on these injection wells trying to stop permitting. We’ve protested, pleaded for public hearings, there is an Ohio brine task force. ( brine is industry language- it is toxic hazardous waste)!. Ohio accepts waste from other states, especially the frack centers of WV, Pa and Texas. A methane release hot spot. Now the state is planning to lease our state parks, forests, any public land to oil and gas. More frack waste, impacted water systems, destroyed ecosystems. We are fighting— see for more info. BTW, Athens county has 32 percent poverty, remnant impacts from the legacy of coal extraction and pollution. The fossil fuel industry, literally is killing us and our planet.

  12. Eclair

    Governor Cuomo, bless his heart, did ban fracking in New York State, citing its adverse effects on the health of ecosystems and his constituents. Along the so-called Southern Tier, the counties lining the southern border of the state (Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegheny, Chemung, Steuben, Tioga and Broome, all overlaying the oil/gas rich Marcellus Shale formation) formerly agriculture and extraction, so now economically deprived, the ban was not popular. Fracking means jobs now. Even if those jobs result in earlier death and poisoned drinking water.

    We live in my in-laws’ house, surrounded by at least six gas wells, plus a noisy pumping station on top of the hill. This part of the Marcellus Shale is shallow, and the wells, dug in the 1990’s, produced for a couple of years, and now are classed ‘inactive’ or dribble out a bits of gas. They have all been bought by a shadowy corporation, PPP Future Development, headed by Chad Bugman (really!) They have taken over a barn, down the road, on an abandoned farm, added a few outbuildings, and littered the area with bits of machinery, vehicles, etc. The neighbors are not happy.

    Two years ago, we purchased the surrounding 60+ acres from our deceased neighbor’s sons. The property includes an ‘inactive’ gas well, and a network of ‘rights of way’ that allow PPP access to two other gas wells on adjoining property. Our deceased neighbor, like many other property owners in the area (mostly on their parents or grandparents former farms) were lured into the arrangements by promises of royalties and ‘free gas’ for their homes.

    We had lived south of Denver for ten years, and I had been active in the anti-fracking activities in that area, especially in the waste-land known as Weld County, and so was not happy with living cheek-by-jowl with a bunch of gas wells, much less buying a parcel of land that hosted gas production companies. But sometimes one just makes the best of a bad situation. So, we’re doing our best to turn the land into a wild-life habitat.

    I do have nightmares, where I walk up the hill and find PPP has installed a skyscraper fracking rig. But, thanks to Mario Cuomo, I don’t have to worry. At least this week. I am sure industry lobbyists are in Albany, burrowing below the surface to weaken the ban on high-volume hydraulic fracking.

  13. Telee

    The abandoned wells develop leaks over time. For gas wells, a major component of the leakage material is methane. This is a well known phenomena of oil and gas extraction.

Comments are closed.