The peer-reviewed study, conducted by four scientists at Duke University, was published May 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and summarized in ProPublica and the May 12 issue of the Huffington Post.
While the study did not manage to link contamination from hydraulic fracturing to individual wells, the study did determine for the first time that levels of flammable methane gas in wells increased to dangerous levels when the wells in question were close to natural gas drilling and hydrofracking operations.
A total of 68 wells used to source potable drinking water within the Marcellus and Utica drilling sites located in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York State respectively were the subject of focus for the purposes of the study. While no evidence was found that chemicals used in the fracking process had leached into groundwater, most of the wells were found to contain methane.
Further, samples taken from wells closest to drilled gas wells or current fracking activity contained 17 times the level of methane observed in wells located furthest from active drilling or within six tenths of a mile.
The researchers expressed surprise at the fracking contamination found. "We certainly didn't expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells," said Robert Jackson, a biology professor at Duke and one of the report's authors. "That was a real surprise."
However, the contamination is no surprise to those residents who claim to have been adversely affected since fracking started up in their area. A video released by Democracy Now in September 2009 tells the story of one woman who eventually reached a settlement with the company she accused of contaminating her well. Previously, she had been told that her water was safe to use—but that it would be wise to keep a window open to prevent the buildup of methane gas that could result in an explosion.
Structures have been known to blow apart after methane gas built up in foundations or the water supply. An explosion in Pennsylvania in 2004 claimed three lives, including that of a child.
YouTube is awash with images of residents lighting their taps on fire. But the issue really gained traction with the release last year of Gasland, the documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox and the winner of the Special Jury Prize for Best US Documentary Feature at Sundance in 2010. The film was also nominated for an Oscar.
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The popularity of the film and its conclusions triggered a response from ANGA (America's Natural Gas Alliance), which released a video of its own refuting Fox's claims. One of the claims made by ANGA is that the presence of methane gas is naturally occurring in some areas and has nothing to do with water fracking.
However, residents affected by hydrofracking claim their wells were clear before the fracking process was begun in their areas. Thus the debate continues to rage, unabated.