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Duke Study: Methane May Leak Into Drinking Water Near Gas Wells

By Jason Allen, CBS 11 News
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A Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site. (credit: AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

A Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site. (credit: AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

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DISH (CBSDFW.COM) – On Monday, 15 Dish residents watched their tiny city become the first to ask the state to force gas producers to cut air emissions. But earlier in the day, researchers at Duke University released a study showing that emissions in drinking water may be a more pressing issue.

Tap water samples have raised eyebrows for years and home videos have captured hose water that catches fire. Residents in drilling areas in North Texas said it’s unnerving that these anecdotes are now backed up by science.

“We’ve been looking so much at the air, now we need to be looking at the water,” Arygle resident Jayme Sizelove said. “Is there something there that could be causing us to be sick as well?”

The study found methane levels up to 17 times higher in water wells that were within 3,000 feet of gas wells compared to those that were outside that range. The study was conducted at 60 private wells in Pennsylvania and New York, above the Marcellus and Utica formations.

Sharon Wilson, spokeswoman for the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said threats from methane might not develop over the long term, but rather instantly and without warning.

As the study notes, methane can “pose an asphyxiation and explosion hazard in confined spaces when it moves from the water into the air.”

“When it migrates into your home, it can blow your house up, it can cause explosions,” Wilson said.

Researchers, however, did not have data on methane levels in the tested drinking water before drilling occurred.

They also said it seemed reasonable that because of the distance between gas wells and aquifers – often thousands of feet of earth – hydraulic fracturing should not directly lead to methane contamination.

Researchers suggested further research was needed to be sure. They echoed gas industry speculation that poorly constructed well casings may be to blame.

Other industry officials said it was possible shallow level gas deposits may be releasing methane into water wells.

But Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman, however, in his last meeting before moving his family because of health fears from drilling, suspected researchers would find methane in Texas too, if they looked for it.

“We should never have gotten to the point 12 or 13 years later where we’re asking, is this safe?” He said.

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