he Amoses soon learned that their domestic water troubles weren't the first to coincide with hydraulic fracturing. Families living on top of gas fields in Alabama, Virginia, New Mexico, and Wyoming, as well as in other parts of Colorado, had reported gas and other contaminants in their drinking water after fracturing operations. In the late 1980s, the McMillian family of central Alabama complained that immediately following fracturing of shallow coal seams near their home, black goo -- possibly a gel used in the fracturing process -- oozed out of their water taps. In the gas-rich San Juan Basin of southwestern Colorado, some families saw the water in their sinks and bathtubs fizz with methane gas after fracturing operations in the area's coal deposits.
Colorado oil and gas commission director Brian Macke states, "There have not been any known cases of [drinking water] contamination from hydraulic fracturing in Colorado." But Macke, along with the majority of the commission's seven-member board, has professional roots in the oil and gas industry, and many experts don't trust such reassurances.
"It's an old industry trick to say, 'There's absolutely no evidence of a problem,' " says Erik Olson, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The question is, how hard have people looked? The answer is, not very hard."
Colorado, like many other states, does have a suite of rules for well construction and operation, and these are designed to prevent fracturing fluids and the natural gas they release from reaching drinking-water supplies. Yet the state does not place any restrictions on the kind or quantity of chemicals that can be blasted into the earth.
Federal agencies offer scant additional protection. Though the Safe Drinking Water Act requires regulation of "underground injection" to ensure the protection of "underground sources of drinking water," Environmental Protection Agency officials have argued that hydraulic fracturing does not qualify as a type of underground injection. (Former EPA head Carol Browner stated in a 1995 letter that since underground injection was not the "primary purpose" of coal-bed methane wells, hydraulic fracturing should get a pass from the Safe Drinking Water Act.)
Gas-field residents in Alabama challenged the agency's stance in the mid-1990s, when the Florida-based Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) brought their complaints to court. LEAF argued that Alabama's underground-injection control program -- which operates with the approval of the federal EPA -- was deficient because it did not address hydraulic fracturing in the state's coal-bed methane wells. LEAF won its case in federal appeals court in 1997, but the ruling applied only to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, the states within the court's jurisdiction. Though the EPA could have chosen to enforce the ruling nationwide, says LEAF attorney David Ludder, it decided not to: "The agency took the attitude, 'If it's to be applied elsewhere, they're going to have to sue us.'" Alabama, the only one of the three states where hydraulic fracturing is used in coal-bed methane wells, remains the only one required by the EPA to permit and oversee the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Following the LEAF decision, the agency began a study of hydraulic fracturing in coal deposits and its possible effects on drinking water (the deeper tight-sands wells, like those near the Amos home, were not included in the study). In 2004 the EPA concluded that fracturing "poses little or no threat" to drinking water and that no further study of the issue was necessary. But NRDC's Olson, a former EPA lawyer who still has contacts within the agency, says the report was polluted with politics. "There was a lot of pressure to come out the 'right way' on the issue," he says. "There were pretty clear signals from a variety of people within the agency, and within the industry, that the agency shouldn't be pushing too hard for a full-blown evaluation that would make the industry look bad."
The EPA obtained safety data on the contents of hydraulic fracturing fluids from four companies, but OGAP researcher Sumi points out that these data are likely incomplete, since companies are permitted to withhold information about components they consider trade secrets. In a draft of the study, the agency identified nine chemicals that were injected underground at concentrations that exceeded state or federal water quality standards. But Sumi, in her 64-page review of the EPA report, noted that this list was missing from the final study. "That raised a lot of red flags," she says.
A veteran EPA environmental engineer named Weston Wilson was also concerned. Wilson has worked in the agency's Denver office for more than 30 years, and while he has a reputation among his colleagues for speaking his mind, he is by no means a partisan critic. In 2003 Wilson was one of a group who received an award from the head of the Bureau of Land Management, Kathleen Clarke, a Bush administration appointee. She applauded him for his work on the effects of energy development on water quality in Montana and Wyoming, and for upholding then Interior Secretary Gale Norton's principles of "consultation, cooperation and communication" with the public in the service of conservation.
Wilson was not involved in the development of the EPA report, but he took a close look at the final document and felt it was based on flimsy research. After much consideration, he decided to take his criticism public -- and perhaps jeopardize his career.
In late 2004 Wilson sent a strongly worded letter and an 18-page supporting memorandum to the Colorado congressional delegation, calling the EPA study "scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law," with a conclusion that "may result in danger to public health and safety." The study lacked critical field research, he wrote, and relied on an external review panel dominated by current and former oil and gas industry employees, including a technical adviser for Halliburton Energy Services. "They had only preliminary data on what was in the frac'ing fluids," Wilson says now. "They just didn't have enough information to conclude that hydraulic fracturing was not a risk."
Wilson's scathing and very public critique was echoed by other experts and sparked an investigation by the EPA's inspector general. It also meant a great deal to Laura Amos, who had some new and more frightening worries about the gas well near her home.