Groundwater: It’s fracking important

Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa. in Bradford County Friday, April 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

Today marks the start of National Ground Water Awareness Week—sandwiched between National Sleep Awareness Week and National Poison Prevention Week.

While such designations have perhaps become too ubiquitous in public health, this year’s National Ground Water Awareness Week may be the most important in its 13-year history.

Clean, safe, ground water is essential for public health.  In fact, it’s essential to life and civilization as we know it.  Ground water is water that exists between soil and rock underneath the earth. Seventy-eight percent of public water systems in the United States use ground water as their primary source, supplying about 90 million Americans. Ground water also quenches the thirst and washes the dishes of the 16 million households in the U.S. who get their water from private wells.

The contamination of groundwater through industrial and consumer pollution has long been a public health concern. The recent proliferation of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, however, has opened a Pandora’s box of ground water contamination risk.

The fracking process involves pumping large amounts of fluid containing highly toxic chemicals deep into the earth, right below the water table (as the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-fracking group, shows on its website). 

As we have discussed in a series of earlier posts, and as the American Public Health Association noted this month in The Nation’s Health,  its monthly news publication, hydraulic fracturing poses serious risks to the safety of our ground water supply—and to the vitality of humans and animals.  More and more, we are seeing that these risks are not hypothetical but real.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency implicated hydraulic fracking as a cause of contaminated  ground water in Pavillion, Wyo., corroborating work by Duke University researchers who found that well water was contaminated by fracking.  Earlier this winter, the issue struck home as the EPA stepped in to deliver drinking water to residents of Dimock, Pa., whose well water was suspected to be contaminated by fracking chemicals.

Our desire for national energy independence should not, and cannot, trump our need for a safe groundwater supply.  If we’re not careful, National Ground Water Awareness week could become National Ground Water Remembrance Week. 

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