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Leaky gas wells loom large in debate over drilling’s impact on water quality

Author: Erik Stokstad - 27 June 2014

On New Year’s Day 2009, the well in Norma Fiorentino’s backyard exploded. An electric pump ignited methane that had seeped into her water well, and the blast was powerful enough to tear apart a concrete pad. That was just the beginning of the fireworks.

Nineteen families in rural Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, blamed well contamination on stray methane leaking from nearby boreholes. They had been rapidly drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which was searching for natural gas in the deep Marcellus Shale. After a lawsuit and government
investigations, Cabot agreed to provide the families with cash settlements and water purification systems, but insisted that the methane had come from natural sources, not its gas wells.

The Dimock controversy, featured in the popular movie Gasland, shone a spotlight on the potential risks associated with the U.S. shale gas boom.

Around the world, media have highlighted dramatic ruptures of pipelines, waste spills, well blowouts, and tanker truck crashes. The problems helped persuade officials in nearby New York state to declare a moratorium on fracking—the hydraulic fracturing that cracks rocks and coaxes natural gas from the Marcellus and other shale formations (see p. 1464). France, Bulgaria, and other countries have also banned fracking.

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