EPA to Assess 3 State Sites for Fracking Impact Study

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
24 June 2011
By Don Hopey

Three Marcellus Shale gas drilling locations in Pennsylvania are among seven case study sites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will use in an ongoing national assessment of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water sources.

Two of the seven sites -- including a prospective Range Resources drilling site in Washington County -- will be used to monitor and study the hydraulic fracturing process throughout the development cycle of such shale gas wells. The other prospective site is in DeSoto Parish, La., where gas drilling companies are fracking the Haynesville Shale.

Five case studies -- including well locations in Washington, Bradford and Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania -- will examine the effect that already fracked and completed wells have on groundwater and drinking water sources in those areas. Other EPA "retrospective" case study sites are in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, the Barnett Shale in Texas and the Raton Basin Pierre Shale play in Colorado.

"This is an important part of a process that will use the best science to help us better understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water," Paul Anastas, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Research and Development, said Thursday.

The $1.9 million EPA fracking study, mandated by Congress, was launched last year and is scheduled to wrap up by January.

The fracking process injects millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand into a gas well under great pressure to create cracks in the shale and release the gas. Although the technology has been employed for 50 years in shallow wells, its use on a massive scale 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground has raised concerns that the process may degrade surface and ground water and pose a threat to human health.

The EPA said it selected the case study sites after receiving thousands of comments and 40 nominations from the public, local and state officials, the drilling industry and environmental organizations. The case study areas were selected based on proximity to population centers and drinking water supplies, concerns about impaired water quality, and health and environmental impacts.

Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokeswoman, said that although the agency had identified the general locations of the case studies, it hadn't finalized the well sites or companies that will be involved in them, except for Range Resources.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the agency had been in contact with the company about well development practices but had not identified a specific well site for analysis.

"Nothing's settled, but we're going to be cooperative and supportive," Mr. Pitzarella said. "I think it's good that the region is part of the study and analysis. We believe this benefits the region, but some people have questions and concerns. And the only way to address that is through facts and the scientific process."

In addition to the case studies, the EPA will use reviews of previous study findings; state drilling and environmental data; information from states, industry and communities; laboratory work; and computer modeling to produce a peer-reviewed final report.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.