EPA Fracking Study May Dodge Drinking Water Issue
6 January 2013
By The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH -- An ongoing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
study on natural gas drilling and its potential for groundwater
contamination has gotten tentative praise so far from both
industry and environmental groups.
Glenn Paulson, the EPA's science adviser, describes the project as
"one of the most aggressive public outreach programs in EPA
The final report won't come out until late 2014. But a 275-page
progress report was released in December and, for all its details,
shows that the EPA doesn't plan to address one contentious issue
-- how often drinking water contamination might occur.
Congress ordered the EPA to study the potential effects of
hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which entails blasting a
mixture of water, sand and hazardous chemicals at underground
shale to release the gas or oil captured in the rock.
As a gas rush surged in parts of the Marcellus Shale region that
underlies Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia concerns
arose for the watershed that provides drinking water for 17
million people from Philadelphia to New York City.
For the study, the EPA is talking to experts from the industry,
the environmental community, and universities. It's conducting its
own research and using federal supercomputers to analyze the
possibility of contamination.
In the report, the EPA describes what it is and isn't studying.
The agency also indicates its final report won't provide a
measurement of the likelihood of contamination -- for example,
once every 100,000 wells or once every 1,000.
The industry and many federal and state officials say fracking is
safe when done properly, but environmental groups and some
scientists contend the risk of contamination is too great.
Earthworks, an environmental group based in Washington, said it
welcomes the EPA study but has concerns with plans not to include
some probability of groundwater contamination in the final report.
The EPA had planned to do both computer simulations of water
contamination and actual field tests at drilling sites. But the
agency hasn't found a drilling company to partner with to test
groundwater around a drilling site. That leaves the computer
simulations. But the EPA said those won't be able to address the
likelihood of contamination "occurring during actual field
"In its inability to find a single company willing to test water
quality before and after drilling and fracking, the EPA is being
thwarted in perhaps the most important part of its study of
fracking's impacts," Earthworks said in a statement.
"Computer simulations are not enough," Alan Septoff, a spokesman
for Earthworks, said.
He said the EPA study and any future studies should consider the
likelihood of water contamination.
The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The progress report says the EPA is studying the possible impact
on drinking water at several stages of the fracking process: when
water is drawn from reservoirs or underground sources and used for
fracking; when a chemical mix is injected into the ground to break
up rock; when wastewater from fracking is disposed of; how the
drilling wells and wastewater-storage wells are constructed; and
the potential for toxic fluids to migrate from deep underground to
near-surface drinking water supplies.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby based in
Washington, said in a statement that the progress report "is just
the first step in a multi-year research study."
"More collaboration, continued transparency and stakeholder
involvement are essential elements for any scientifically sound
study, and we hope that the rest of this process remains open and
any data released has the necessary context," API policy adviser
Stephanie Meadows said.
Despite its concerns, Earthworks described the EPA study as a
"It represents a step towards EPA's first real scientific inquiry
into the safety of fracking," the group said.