While Barnett Shale gas producers deny any connection to their operations, a pair of scientists are now disputing that. They say test results just released by state regulators provide concrete evidence linking fracking and groundwater contamination.
Parker County resident Steve Lipsky first noticed it in 2010. He said his well water was becoming contaminated with increasing levels of methane gas. He added that once he vented his well, natural gas would come streaming out. He illustrates the volume of gas by lighting the vent on fire at night.
Today, the contamination has become so bad, he says, even his well water ignites.
"Oh, it's getting worse,” Lipsky said. “That's what I'm trying to tell you."
Last summer, Lipsky filed a complaint with state oil and gas regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission.
Field agents and technicians came out and conducted tests, measuring the amount of gas in his well and determining where the gas was coming from. Those tests have now been conducted and last week, the Texas Railroad Commission issued its official findings.
The methane concentration levels in Lipsky's water is up slightly, the report indicates. It also states that the chemical make-up of the methane was inconclusive as to a specific source of the gas.
Specifically, the tests conducted by the state showed Lipsky's water contained 8.6 milligrams per liter of methane, just under the federal government's unacceptable limit of 10. But tests recently run by University of Texas at Arlington scientist Zac Hildebrand measured 83 milligrams per liter, the highest methane contamination level he says he has ever seen.
"But what we can say right now is that those are dangerous — that's a dangerous level," Hildebrand said.
In an e-mail to WFAA-TV last February, Railroad Commission spokeswoman Stacie Fowler said “the Commission is aware of elevated methane concentration levels." Fowler also said the state’s "sampling and test results were focused on the source of the methane gas" and not on testing methane levels.
Lipsky says the Railroad Commission knew its concentration tests were not accurate.
"For whatever reason, they do not want to have on their record the true levels that I have," Lipsky said.
So what did the state's tests reveal about the source of Lipsky's gas?
Test data supplied in the report measured the chemical makeup of both the gas found in Lipsky's water and from two nearby gas production wells, called the Butler and the Teal. According to the Railroad Commission report, "the evidence is insufficient" to determine if the two samples match.
The scientists say the test data in the Railroad Commission's report shows the chemical signature — known as the isotopic analysis — of the Barnett Shale gas is 46.52. The chemical signature measurement of the gas in Lipsky’s well is 46.63, an almost identical match.
"The methane and ethane numbers from the Butler and Teal production are essentially exactly the same as from Lipsky's water well,” said Geoffrey Thyne, who reviewed the data for WFAA-TV. Thyne is a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency geochemist, who know works for ESal, a Wyoming-based firm that contracts with oil producers. “It tells me that the gas is the same, and that the gas in Lipsky's water well was derived from the Barnett formation," Thyne said.
Bryce Payne, a soil scientist for Pennsylvania-based Gas Safety Inc., also reviewed the data. Payne, who Lipsky had hired to review past data, agreed, saying the gas in Lipsky's water (referred to in the report as well number 8) is clearly the result of fracking operations.
"The gas from well number 8 is coming from the Barnett, and it's coming nearly straight from the Barnett," Payne said.
What's more, both Thyne and Payne say these test results could represent the nation's first conclusive link between fracking and aquifer contamination.
"And what we seem to have here is the first good example that that in fact is happening,” Thyne said.
The Railroad Commission's report leaves open the possibility that the contamination "may be attributed to... natural migration from the shallow Strawn gas formation" located just below the aquifer.
Asked about the alleged discrepancies, state officials gave us a statement: "Railroad Commission staff stands behind the conclusions reached in the May 23rd report. We are aware of other ongoing studies in the area, and we welcome the opportunity to review any future reports."
But Lipsky said he will no longer ask state regulators for protection. He said the new evidence is illuminating and overwhelming, and that residents of the Barnett Shale must act now to protect their water.
"Unless people get off the couch and vote or do something, who's going to stop them from continuing doing what they are doing?" Lipsky said.
Brett Shipp is an investigative reporter at WFAA-TV in Dallas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.