Woman lights fracking-polluted tap water on fire

In the Wall Street Journal today, this extraordinary photograph of a Pennsylvania woman lighting water on fire as it pours out of her kitchen sink faucet. State regulators have attributed the contamination to natural-gas drilling. Full WSJ story here (site reg/paywall). Via Pro Publica, which has much more on the topic here.


  1. No that’s normal. The natives in the area have been speaking of this fire water for centuries. Clearly this is a harmless natural phenomenon. DRILL BABY DRILL!

  2. I think the name of this practice is convenient. We don’t even have to re-brand it in order to make it sound bad.

  3. has anyone tried offering a glass of this tapwater to a fracking company executive at one of the various public hearings and meetings on the topic, a la the Blinky episode of the Simpsons? or really, you’d want it in a sealed bottle, to capture the volatiles I guess, but the point remains

  4. Hey, look at it this way, in the winter it’ll take no time at all to get hot water…you can also just point your kitchen sink hose at the fireplace to get your fire started.

    The chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute defended the safety of oil and natural gas extraction by “fracking” in a local interview last week and said the process is well regulated by state officials.

    Concerns about groundwater contamination from the process known officially as hydraulic fracturing are unfounded and more regulation is unnecessary, added the API economist, John Felmy.

    “Before you call for more regulation, prove there’s a problem first,” he said, speaking after an appearance on a local radio show.


    “I meant to say prove there’s a problem other than that your drinking water’s on fire!”

  5. I’m honestly not trying to troll here, but I feel the need to point out that the issue of fracking was recently discussed on Skeptoid, and Brian Dunning came to a different conclusion. I’m not saying that fracking is necessarily harm-free, mind you! I’m just cautious about jumping from correlation to causation too quickly—but I’m certainly no expert. :)

    1. I heard about this on Skeptoid too, and, while it looks alarming, Brian Dunning talks calmly and level-headed-ly (is that a word?) about it:

      “However, the burning water is an undisputed fact. So where is this methane coming from, if not from fracking? As it happens, it’s natural, worldwide, for anyone who has a well in a natural gas area. Natural gas is not found only in the deep shale beds, it’s in shallower layers as well; so we always expect some gas to make it into well water in particular regions. But the mining of natural gas also has a few consequences that can force methane into aquifers. First, the underground changes in pressure can prompt methane to migrate from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Second, poorly sealed natural gas wells can (and do) leak methane into adjacent strata. These poorly sealed wells are human errors that it’s the responsibility of the driller to repair. Third, old abandoned wells do the same thing, but often without anyone repairing them. None of these problems are related to fracking, per se.”

    2. In some ways it’s sort of a Type I v. Type II error problem.


      There is a trade off between the two.  One type of error is that you stop economic activity that is actually safe and you waste economic activity and people lose jobs.  The other type corresponds to continuing something that is actually dangerous.  You can’t minimize one type of error without increasing the chances of the other.  The question then becomes, which type of error should one be more concerned with?

      In instances like this, I think one should err on the side of abstaining from the activity that might possibly kill or sicken people.

      1. I see what you’re saying, and I’m not necessarily against deploying the precautionary principle in this case—as I said, I have no expertise in this area, so I’m really not qualified to make the call.

  6. I think it needs to be pointed out that it states in the article that they are drilling directly in her back yard.  Not that I am for or against fracking at all.  I read the post and thought “wow…sounds like some widespread contamination” then I read the picture captions and realized it could just be a leaking wellhead or many other things. 

    I think the water table needs protection for sure but it shouldn’t surprise anyone when a water well and a natural gas well are close that this could happen. 

    Just wait until the gas company starts charging her for all the free methane she has been getting.

  7. John McPhee has written a series of Geology essays over the past 25 years, some of which grew into books such Rising From the Plains and Assembling California. In one of his essays, he writes about a river in Pennsylvania catching fire due to oil seeps. 

    McPhee points out it was the burning water that drew the oil drillers like Rockefeller to the region as it was an obvious indication there was plentiful oil in Pennsylvania.

    Now, 130 years later, the water is still burning. Whether at this point,  it’s due to fracking or due to a natural gas seep in the aquifer isn’t clear. 

    1. I haven’t seen any comments so far that I’d characterise as “in favor of fracking”, just a few people pointing out that there may be other explanations for the phenomenon described.

  8. She should just pump it directly into her home heating tanks! People complain about everything these days.

  9. There is a lot of failed hydrogeology pedantry going on in this thread. Not pointing fingers.

    As a groundwater professional I will say this. Drinking water wells are not set into formations that yield flammable water. Nobody will pay you for that well.

    Normal use of a small drinking water well will not cause any measurable change in the aquifer, for it will not be permitted by your board of health or appropriate other government agency (not that they’re all perfectly up on this, but pretty much they are, ymmv).

    One thing I can say for certain – drilling a borehole PAST the region from which an existing drinking water well draws its water (the screened interval) most certainly can affect the water quality in the screened interval, with the effects increased with increasing proximity of the two boreholes (just add calculus).

    Pressurized water from a lower hydraulic layer will definitely flow up a borehole (think artesian well). The desire of methane to be a gas adds some pressure.

  10. The real danger from methane in the water isn’t so much poisoning as explosion hazard.  How much methane leaks into their house every time they take a shower?

  11. Living in PA, we are getting a whole lot of Big Oil sponsored commercials on TV with kind normal folk telling us how in this hard economic time, that we would be Fraking nuts to be anti-fraking.  Also if we tax fracking, we frack the taxes!  It will hurt the little people!!!!!


  12. This clusterf*ck technology is now in the UK where it has been causing earth quakes!

    If the well water contained only methane then perhaps this could be resolved – the issue is the awesome cocktail of secret chemicals that come back up with the water. Everything you do not want near a living organism.

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