EPA Finds Secret Fracking Chemicals in Drinking Water

by Brian Turnbaugh*, 8/31/2009

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has discovered numerous pollutants in well water near gas drilling sites, including chemicals that are used in a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The investigation in central Wyoming is the first water testing by EPA examining the impacts of gas drilling on drinking water. However, EPA is hobbled in its duty to protect the public because gas drillers are allowed to keep secret the chemicals they pump into the ground – toxic chemicals that may be entering ground water supplies.

Responding to years of complaints of water contamination and illnesses from citizens in rural Wyoming, the EPA investigated the water quality of 39 wells surrounding a small community besieged by gas drilling. The agency found a range of contaminants, including arsenic, copper, vanadium, and methane gas in the water. Many of the substances are found in various fluids used at drilling sites. EPA scientists are acknowledging the growing body of evidence linking hydraulic fracturing to numerous cases of contamination and health problems.

The drilling industry claims no federal regulation of fracking is needed, citing the lack of conclusive proof linking fracking chemicals to contamination of a particular water source. Unfortunately for EPA and citizens like those in Wyoming who depend on wells, EPA has little authority to do the scientific analysis needed to effectively protect water supplies. A 2005 energy bill exempted gas drilling operations from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA eventually was able to exercise its authority under the Superfund law to begin its investigation in Wyoming.

The news organization ProPublica describes the burdensome and slow process EPA is forced to use to protect public health:

EPA investigators explained that because they had no idea what to test for, they were relegated to an exhaustive process of scanning water samples for spikes in unidentified compounds and then running those compounds like fingerprints through a criminal database for matches against a vast library of unregulated and understudied substances. That is how they found the adamantanes and 2-BE [compounds associated with gas drilling].

All this effort was to test just 39 water wells surrounding one small town. There are thousands of gas-drilling sites around the country that are using secret fracking fluids. Gas drilling expanded greatly during the previous administration. Drilling sites are active or in development in more than 30 states, including in the watershed that supplies drinking water to New York City.

Legislation that is now in Congress would close the regulatory loophole granted to the oil and gas industry and require drillers to disclose what chemicals are in their fracking fluids. Without knowing what chemicals to test for and without the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA's investigations will be slower and costlier and identifying the source of contaminants extremely difficult. Under these restrictions, which are designed to protect industry, the government cannot protect the drinking water and health of Americans.

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