Three Things to Know About a New USGS Injection Well Study

Recently, researchers at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published a report claiming a stream in West Virginia was negatively impacted by an underground injection well in the area. Troublingly, the authors blame all the issues at this site on fracking, even though they find small traces of brine – not fracking fluid. The study also finds Wolf Creek had contamination issues that far predate unconventional oil and gas development, which means the researchers were cherry picking an atypical site.

It’s worth noting that three of the researchers of this latest USGS study also worked on a debunked study released in April led by Christopher Kassotis of Duke University and Susan Nagel of the University of Missouri, which exaggerated claims of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) at the same West Virginia sites.  Nagel in particular has been very open about her anti-fracking bias, even publicly endorsing Gasland in a talk entitled “What the Frack?” in which she called Josh Fox’s discredited films “educational” because they contain “a lot of good information.”  The fact that many of the researchers of this USGS study have previously partnered with anti-fracking researchers to produce a scientifically flimsy report is troubling to say the least.

Here are the three top things to know about the study.

Fact #1: Researchers focus on atypical site with contamination issues that far predate shale development

It’s immediately apparent that researchers chose a site that is not typical of the approximately 180,000 Class II injection wells operating in the U.S. As the authors point out, the injection well site is surrounded by land that was historically used for industrial activity. According to the report:

“The headwaters of Wolf Creek flow through areas of past surface coal mining that have since been covered or reclaimed and are primarily residential or agricultural land” (p. 6)

By sampling water at a site with a history of coal mining and agricultural activities, the authors acknowledge that other sources could be contributing to water quality issues in the area. In fact, the study mentions that contamination events from other sources have already taken place in the area, noting:

“Despite reclamation, Wolf Creek was classified as biologically impaired by the WVDEP in 2008, due to high levels of iron and dissolved aluminum, which may be due to acid mine drainage from the Summerlee coal mine.” (p. 6)

If the researchers acknowledge that there are other factors in the area that could contribute to degradation of water quality, and that the water has already been impacted by one of these sources, it’s concerning the authors still chose this site for research. Moreover, that sampling continued even when the research area was limited due to ongoing industrial activity makes even less sense. As the authors mention:

“No samples were obtained for the current study below Site 3 due to other industrial activities in the area (e.g., an automotive junkyard).” (p. 7)

To the credit of the researchers, they do admit that these other sources could have an impact on water quality, stating:

“In addition, background concentrations in streams maybe elevated owing to previous land use, such as coal mining, which highlights the necessity of identifying and sampling an appropriate background site (e.g., upstream).” (p. 17)

Given the past and current possibilities for sources in the area with the potential to impact water quality, that the study still blames fracking wastewater is puzzling to say the least. Additionally, it calls into question the study conclusions when researchers so adamantly blame oil and gas wastewater from the injection well for negatively impacting water quality, yet can’t determine the exact source. According to the study:

“Our findings show that the disposal facility is impacting the stream but we are unable to identify a point source of contaminants to the stream.”(p. 17)

Fact #2: Researchers failed to take hydrologic measurements

In the study, the authors focus on water quality measurements such as compound concentrations, pH level, and conductivity from seven different “sites” to determine if wastewater disposal in the injection well impacted water quality. By comparing the water quality across the sites, and against the two “background” sites, the researchers claim that water downstream of the injection well is negatively impacted by oil and gas wastewater disposed of at the well.

However, issues with the data sampling calls their findings into question. For example, when taking these samples, the researchers failed to take “hydrologic measurements”, or the movement and quantity of water at the sites. According to the study:

“Detailed sampling, quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) procedures, and analytical methods are described in the SI Methods. No hydrologic measurements were conducted or groundwater sampled during the September and June sampling efforts. Further investigations into the hydrology of the site were not possible due to site access limitations.” (p. 7; emphasis added)

While this might not seem like a large issue, hydrologic measurements are necessary to understand the quality of the water samples taken. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

Hydrological measurements are essential for the interpretation of water quality data and for water resource management. Variations in hydrological conditions have important effects on water quality. In rivers, such factors as the discharge (volume of water passing through a cross-section of the river in a unit of time), the velocity of flow, turbulence and depth will influence water quality. For example, the water in a stream that is in flood and experiencing extreme turbulence is likely to be of poorer quality than when the stream is flowing under quiescent conditions…Discharge estimates are also essential when calculating pollutant fluxes, such as where rivers cross international boundaries or enter the sea.” (Emphasis added)

In other words, without hydrological measurements, the differences in compound concentrations between the various sites could be, at least partially, attributed to changes in water turbulence, depth and other measures of movement.

Fact #3: Results have nothing do with fracking; concentrations of brine “small”

Importantly, the study doesn’t find any traces of fracking chemicals, again showing that the authors misleadingly equate fracking with disposal. Instead, the study finds small traces of brine, which is the byproduct of conventional oil and gas production, not just unconventional production. Even so, the researchers note that amount of brine found in the stream is minimal at most. As the study notes,

“However, the contribution of wastewaters to the stream chemistry is small, but still detectable, with less than 0.001 part brine to 0.999 parts freshwater needed to account for the observed stream Br- and Cl- contents.” (p. 16)


USGS has published study after study finding that the fracking process has not contaminated water and despite the headlines the researchers may have generated, they failed to show a connection between fracking and a negative impact on surface water quality. By cherry-picking an injection well site in an area with several activities that could account for water impacts, as well as failing to take hydrologic samples, the researchers methodology are called into question.


  1. Paul Heckbert says:

    This energyindepth (EID) comment faults the USGS study by Akob et al for choosing a test area where previous contamination took place. This is a bogus objection. The EID people ignored the simple and totally standard method that the USGS researchers used to isolate the contamination effect of the injection well, namely to work with relative pollution levels: pollution downstream of the site minus pollution upstream of the site. If EID had read the report carefully, they would have seen that USGS thereby eliminated previous contamination as an issue. A realist would point out that most of West Virginia and neighboring states have been contaminated by industrial activity of some sort over time. I suspect that EID would prefer that all scientists clear their site locations with EID (that is, with the gas industry) before doing any measurements, and that (surprise!) EID would decide that there were no good test sites, and the whole investigation should be called off, and we should all get back to business, i.e. get back into bed with the gas companies.

    “Energy In Depth” should change their name to “Shallow Thoughts about Energy”.

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