CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chemicals injected into the ground by natural gas drillers could migrate toward drinking water supplies much more quickly than previously thought, according to a new study that raises questions about West Virginia's ongoing Marcellus Shale boom.
Some scientists and industry officials have argued that thick layers of impermeable rock would keep "fracking fluids" used by modern natural gas operations tucked safety away underground, far below aquifers used for residential drinking water.
But using computer modeling, hydrogeologist Tom Myers found in the new study that hydraulic fracturing used by the natural gas industry could exacerbate existing cracks and faults in underground rock formations.
This could allow toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids to migrate upward toward water wells in perhaps only "a few years," according to Myers.
"The evidence for potential vertical contaminant flow is strong," Myers wrote in his study.
Myers is a private consultant based in Nevada who does work for the federal government and environmental groups. Research for the study was paid for by the Park Foundation and the Catskill Mountainkeeper, two groups that have opposed drilling and fracking in New York portions of the Marcellus Shale.
The new study was published in Ground Water, the peer-reviewed journal of the National Groundwater Association, a non-profit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses.
In their push for more natural gas, drilling operators are increasing using a combination of vertical drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process that shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart rock and release the gas. West Virginia political leaders are hoping this practice expands as gas companies seek to tap into the vast reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from 95,000 square miles from southern New York and into eastern Ohio.
In a massive public relations effort, industry officials argue that fracking chemicals cannot possibly pollute drinking water, because fracking occurs far below aquifers used for wells and chemicals would take far too long to ever possibly migrate through thick layers of rock.
The new study by Myers is the first scientific paper to strongly challenge those arguments, and also may be the first peer-reviewed research to attempt to evaluate the issue.
Myers used computer software to try to project where and how quickly fracking fluids could move over time.