Controversy Mounts over EPA’s Release of Draft Report on Fracking

On May 3, the Associated Press reported that the governor of Wyoming pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to delay the release of a draft study linking a controversial natural gas extraction process, commonly referred to as fracking, to the contamination of drinking water. Wyoming officials apparently used the delay to coordinate efforts with the oil and gas industries to attack the report’s findings.

The government report is part of a growing body of evidence that fracking is a source of chemical contamination for local water supplies. Fracking is a process where sand and fluids, including toxic chemicals, are pumped underground at very high pressure to cause tiny fissures in rock and force natural gas out of shale rock deposits. Fracking fluid typically contains benzene, toluene, and pesticides, among other harmful substances.

The Draft Pavillion Report

In a December 2011 draft report, the EPA, for the first time, confirmed what residents of Pavillion, WY, have been complaining about for a long time: fracking may be the cause of groundwater pollution in their small community in the central part of the state. The EPA’s draft report found dangerous amounts of the carcinogenic chemical benzene, as well as 2-butoxyethanol, which may cause severe kidney damage, in a monitoring well near Pavillion. The chemicals, not found naturally in groundwater wells, were measured to be fifty times the maximum contamination level allowed under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Residents of Pavillion began complaining that their drinking water smelled and tasted of chemicals in the mid-1990s, shortly after nearby gas wells were "fracked." For over a decade, residents asked Wyoming state officials and the natural gas companies, EnCana (and its predecessor, Tom Brown, Inc.), to address the contamination of their water and the health problems residents felt were related to the toxins – including asthma and cardiac trouble. According to residents:

When we turn on the tap, the water reeks of hydrocarbons and chemicals. Our drinking water now comes from five-gallon jugs. We wonder how we’re going to support our families and pay our bills if the contamination affects our livestock and farming operations. Selling out is no longer an option because property values in the Pavillion area have declined to nothing.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality refused to test the water, denying any connection between oil and gas development and water contamination, so in 2008, residents turned to the federal government – the EPA – in frustration. Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, the agency began an investigation to determine if groundwater contamination existed. The EPA sampled a variety of wells, including residential wells, stock wells, shallow monitoring wells, and two municipal wells. The initial sampling in 2008 revealed traces of methane, hydrocarbons, and other contaminants associated with fracking fluids in some of the wells.

In 2010, the EPA installed two deep monitoring wells to sample water in the local aquifer and to differentiate deep sources of contamination (fracking drills deep) from shallow sources of contamination. The agency also retested private and public drinking water wells in the community. EPA’s analysis of the deep monitoring wells found chemicals related to fracking fluids, such as benzene, and high methane levels. The EPA determined that chemicals, such as petroleum hydrocarbons and methane, found in the more shallow wells were related to leakage and disposal of wastewater and other drilling wastes. Following the 2010 testing, federal health officials reviewed EPA’s data and urged residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes while showering to prevent explosions from released methane gas.

The Controversy over the Draft Report

After requesting and reviewing more than 11,000 e-mails from Wyoming officials, the Associated Press found evidence that Wyoming Governor Matt Mead pressured EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to delay publicizing the draft study until state officials could review the data. Wyoming stakeholders participating in the Pavillion groundwater contamination study received a preliminary copy of EPA’s draft report before it was publicly released on Dec. 8.

Prior to the Associated Press investigation, Jackson acknowledged her delay of the draft report in a January letter to Mead. The letter stated that the delay had been to allow the state, tribes, industry, and federal agencies time to conduct "a full technical review of the data and supporting information…"

However, findings from the investigation show that Wyoming officials took advantage of the extra time to coordinate an all-out press attack against the EPA’s report. Immediately following the release, both EnCana Oil and Gas USA (the company that owns and operates the Pavillion gas field) and Wyoming state officials slammed the EPA and the report, questioning the agency’s methods and analysis.

Wyoming officials were particularly concerned with how the report’s findings would affect state revenue, not the health and safety of its residents, according to the Associated Press. Wyoming is ranked third in onshore gas production in the U.S., and nearly every new natural gas well in the state is fracked. "The limiting of the hydraulic fracturing process will result in negative impacts to the oil and gas revenues to the state of Wyoming," wrote Tom Doll, supervisor of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, in an e-mail to top state officials.

Members of Congress also attacked the EPA report. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, called the report "a political ploy" and "offensive." The House Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing in February to assess the validity and integrity of the draft report’s findings. The hearing, led by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), questioned the scientific integrity of the report, claiming that "we have politics trumping policy, and advocacy trumping science." Yet none of the four panelists who testified were actually scientists. Panelists included representatives from industry, Wyoming’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the EPA, and a public health expert.

Nonetheless, James Martin, the EPA's regional administrator for Region 8 (which covers much the Rocky Mountains and the Northern Plains), testified that state and industry officials had been consulted many times before, during, and after the testing. In fact, a group of external scientists were consulted on the draft report prior to its early December release. In addition, at the request of industry, the public comment period on the study was extended from 45 days to 90 days. Following the comment period, the report was subjected to standard peer review.

The House subcommittee did not invite Pavillion residents to the hearing. Pavillion resident John Fenton, who is chair of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, told MSNBC that EPA’s investigation "proves the importance of having a federal agency that can protect people and the environment. We hope that answers to our on-going health problems and other impacts can now be addressed and that the responsible parties will finally be required to remediate the damages." Fenton’s group noted that Wyoming’s "delaying tactics" have allowed the contamination to continue, with no plans to address impacts on the residents.

Ten Republican senators have even called on EPA to label the report as a "highly influential scientific assessment" and to require it to undergo a more stringent peer review process that could delay the final report considerably.

Mounting Evidence against Fracking

Despite the attack, evidence supports the EPA’s findings. A January Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found no obvious concerns with the legality and quality of EPA’s draft report. The CRS is a public policy research agency that reports directly to Congress. Also, in May, an independent scientist and expert in hydrology, Dr. Tom Myers, declared the EPA’s conclusion sound. "It is clear that hydraulic fracturing has polluted the groundwater east of Pavillion with contaminants associated with the fracking process," said Myers.

An earlier study of fracking well sites in Pennsylvania and New York by Duke University scientists also found extensive evidence of methane contamination (associated with deep shale beds) in drinking water wells located within a kilometer of fracking sites. There are multiple documented cases of severe water contamination near fracking sites, including water that can actually be set on fire as it comes out of the faucet. In addition, the process produces more greenhouse gas emissions over time than traditional methods of oil drilling or coal mining, according to a Cornell University study.

Moving Forward

In March, the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the State of Wyoming, and the tribes have announced that they are going to do additional sampling of the groundwater. The EPA has announced it is extending the public comment period through October 2012 until additional sampling has been completed. EPA has also delayed convening the peer review panel on the draft Pavillion report until a report containing U.S. Geological Survey data is publicly available. In the meantime, residents of Pavillion are still drinking bottled water and ventilating their bathrooms when they shower to avoid explosions.

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