Myth 14 – “There is no risk to our water”

This claim has been made repeatedly over the last few years by those supporting fracking. The claim seems to be based on some pretty spurious grounds. These would seem to be:

1. The only water we should be concerned about is the water we drink from the tap.
2. The water used in the area is sourced from upland water in the Lake District.
3. There is no potable aquifer below the existing site at Preston New Road.

Let’s take  a look at these claims in more detail. (In what follows I will use the word “fracking” to mean all of the end to end processes involved in undertaking hydraulic fracturing and not just the act of fracturing itself)

1. The only water we should be concerned about is the water we drink from the tap.

It is clear that water has many other uses than just human drinking water. We can probably discard fracking related health concerns regarding the water used in industrial processes as long as it is properly treated and disposed of after use. However, the same is not true of water used in irrigation or for watering livestock. Any issues with the water here run the risk of pollution entering the food chain. Limiting their apparent concern to water consumed from taps by humans is simply a convenient reframing which allows the pro-frackers to ignore other potential issues with water usage. We have known about potential issues since as long ago as 2010 when:

the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle belonging to Don and Carol Johnson, who farm about 175 miles southwest of Jaffe. The animals had come into wastewater that leaked from a nearby well that showed concentrations of chlorine, barium, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a fracked well began bellowing, foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead. Homeowners near fracked sites complain about a host of frightening consequences, from poisoned wells to sickened pets to debilitating illnesses.

Clearly there are valid concerns about the potential impacts on livestock and other agriculture relating to potential groundwater contamination from fracking. Let’s not let them reframe the argument to exclude issues.

2. The water used in the area is sourced from upland water in the Lake District

This argument has been used for so long that it is growing whiskers. However it is untrue. Like many lies it has a grain of truth in it, but the way it is presented is totally and intentionally misleading. By way of an example take a look at this exchange involving the industry PR front group Backing Fracking:

Yes, that’s right, they suggest that all of our drinking water is coming from the Lake District. In passing it is also worth noting that they claim that only 1% of people “here” source drinking water from their own wells. Presumably they are not aware of the fact that the Environment Agency told us that 11% of Fylde households draw at least some of their water from boreholes.

So where does our water actually come from then. Well United Utilities told me verbally this week that my water in FY8 is all supplied from Franklaw Water Treatment Works with 46% from local boreholes and 54% from “upland water” . In a written reply to a St Annes resident they stated:

The two sets of information seem slightly contradictory considering that this correspondent also lives in FY8 but the overall conclusion is glaringly obvious. Something like half of our water is from local boreholes or other ground or surface water sources including boreholes and rivers.

How do these sources related to the area under consideration for fracking? This picture overlays an approximate shape of Cuadrilla’s PEDL 165 over the EA map of water abstraction sources.

As can readily be seen there are many such sources within the PEDL area and not a few in the area east of the Woodsfold Fault (approximate position shown in red above) which separates what is assumed to be a saline aquifer from the sweet water in the eastern part of the deep Sherwood aquifer.

The idea put about by the fracking PR machine that all of our water comes from the Lake District is therefore demonstrably false. Moreover it is very clear that Cuadrilla’s licence area is congruent with much of the Sherwood aquifer, including a large portion which is to the east of the Woodsfold fault.

But the proposed extraction sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre are above the saline portion of the Sherwood aquifer so there is no risk to drinking water there, is there? Surely?

Which brings us onto the third point, the claim that:

3. There is no potable aquifer below the existing site at Preston New Road.

This is also demonstrably false. On their web site the British Geological Survey tell us that (our emphasis added in bold):

There are two significant aquifers across Lancashire: a shallow aquifer formed of superficial glacial sand and gravel interbedded with clay (Figure 1), and a deeper aquifer below formed by the Sherwood Sandstone (Figure 2).

The shallow aquifer is up to 40 m thick and is designated by the Environment Agency as a Secondary B aquifer. It is used for private drinking water supply, farms and golf course irrigation. In the area of the proposed shale–gas sites, this aquifer is underlain by a thick layer (up to 350 m) of a low–permeability mudstone, the Mercia Mudstone. Water moves slowly through this mudstone and it is not classed as an aquifer. Below this is the Sherwood Sandstone, which reaches a thickness of up to 750 m. The Sherwood Sandstone is classed by the Environment Agency as a Principal aquifer.

There is every reason to believe that the shallow superficial aquifer extends across the whole area and is also present at the Cuadrilla PNR site. When the BGS  publish a report on the superficial geology of the area it is expected to confirm this.

So there we have it – the claim that water cannot be at risk from Cuadrilla’s fracking project in general and their activity at PNR specifically is clearly nothing more than industry PR spin.

The question we need to be asking is the extent and potential impacts of that risk, not whether it exists.

It clearly does.