Mountain States

Activist Researchers Try (and Fail) to Revive Debunked Pavillion Water Contamination Narrative

An activist research team responsible for a myriad of studies that have repeatedly failed to link fracking to health problems outdid itself recently, releasing a study that attempts to revive the long-debunked narrative that fracking has contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyo. — even though the report plainly states that the water samples collected for the study found no evidence to support such a conclusion.

Buried on the fourth page of the report is the fact that of the 22 water samples taken from locations near unconventional Pavillion natural gas production, and a separate Wyoming conventional oil and gas producing region, “no samples exhibited significant toxicity.”

This completely contradicts a Casper Star-Tribune story that states the researchers “found evidence for groundwater contamination from both types of drilling,” a characterization that was apparently conveyed to the paper by study co-author Christopher Kassotis, who was interviewed for the Star-Tribune story.

That’s just one of a number of glaring flaws in this latest report by the research team of Kassotis and University of Missouri activist researcher Susan Nagel that desperately tries (and fails) to link fracking to endocrine disruption issues. Here are three other things to know about this study.

#1. Contrary to co-author’s claim, the endocrine-disrupting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) detected in the Pavillion samples were not exclusive to fracking fluid

Kassotis’ comments in the Star-Tribune story indicate that the researchers concluded their Pavillion water samples included endocrine-disrupting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — 2-ethylhex-anol, naphthalene and styrene — that can only be traced to fracking fluid. Kassotis told the Star-Tribune:

“There are really no other known progesterone antagonists [disruptors] in the environment.’ than those from fracking fluids. “The only other is RU 486 – the morning after pill. Traces [of RU 486] might show up in sewage water, but that’s not at high levels and that’s not common.”

However, the language used in the study was much more tepid and less absolute than the verbiage Kassotis chose to use in the Star-Tribune interview. And for good reason — these VOCs are not exclusive to fracking fluid at all, and the study itself comes right out and says it. From the report:

“While BTEX constituents also are associated with petroleum and could be present due to UOG or COG operations, 2-ethylhex-anol, naphthalene, and styrene are not and could suggest UOG-sourced contamination in Pavillion. “Importantly, these chemicals are all utilized for non-oil and gas operation purposes as well, including gasoline, detergents, cosmetics and personal care products, chemical precursors, and other purposes, and thus could be present at these sites due to non-UOG/COG operations.”

Further confirming the fact that 2-ethylhexanol, naphthalene and styrene are not specific to unconventional development (i.e. fracking fluid), the report also acknowledges that these chemicals were detected in the conventional site samples as well.

“Interestingly, this chemical (2-ethylhexanol) also was detected at 10- to 100-fold lower concentrations at three sites in the conventional gas region. This suggests potential utilization of this chemical for COG operations. This chemical has an application in drilling muds (used to aid in the drilling of boreholes), which could explain the observed presence in the COG region, or could suggest reworking of COG wells to increase production using UOG technologies, or contamination from another source (it also is used as a plasticizer and in some sunscreens).”

The following excerpts from the study illustrate the fact that the narrative the researchers sold to the Star-Tribune was not reflective of what this study actually found.

“Samples from UOG areas tended to exhibit progesterone receptor antagonism more often, suggesting there may be a UOG-related impact on these endocrine activities. We also report UOG-specific contaminants in Pavillion groundwater extracts, and these same chemicals at high concentrations in a local UOG wastewater sample.”

“Future research should attempt to link more directly the identified chemicals to specific anthropogenic environmental inputs.”

“In conclusion, we report increased UOG-associated VOCs in the Pavillion groundwater extracts and these chemicals at high concentrations in a local UOG waste-water sample. We also observed a tendency for increased ER and PR antagonism at UOG sites relative to controls and greater ER antagonism relative to the conventional gas region, suggesting a putative UOG impact on the endocrine activities at these sites, although future research is needed to identify the specific contaminants promoting the observed bioactivities.”

The inconclusive nature of these findings can be partially traced to the fact that this was a pilot study, also known as a screening study, meaning that it is only intended to form a hypothesis and is not intended to draw concrete conclusions. That said, it’s not clear as to why such a study would be actively shopped to the media. But this research team has never hesitated to do just that with similar reports, and this study’s funding sources could explain the motivation.

#2. Study partially funded and conducted by anti-fracking activists

The Star-Tribune also fails to disclose the fact that this study was not only partially funded by an environmental justice group that has made Pavillion a focal point of its anti-oil-and-gas efforts, a well-known anti-fracking activist also personally collected “many” of the water samples used in the study.

The study’s acknowledgements section states:

“The authors greatly thank Deborah Thomas for conducting many of the water sample collection reported herein and for many helpful discussions regarding the region.”

Thomas is a very active member of the Powder River Basin Defense Council, an anti-fossil fuel group based in Wyoming, and is even described as an “activist” by well-known national “Keep It In the Ground” group Earthworks. The study says the following of Thomas’ role in the sample collection process:

“Sites included groundwater sources collected from private land, selected by a local contact who knew the regions and landowners as well as by a word- of-mouth campaign, and were sources used for drinking water whenever possible. Several sites were municipal water sourced from groundwater wells in the region and transported to homes for cistern storage; these samples were included as groundwater in these analyses.”

The acknowledgements section also notes that the study was “supported by funds provided by Coming Clean, Inc.

According to Coming Clean Inc.’s website, the Vermont-based group was “founded in 2001 by environmental health and justice organizers to better unite our movement parts, for a more holistic and effective approach to protecting our health and safety from toxic trespass.  Our mission is to reform the industrial chemical and fossil fuels industries so they are no longer a source of harm, and to secure systemic changes that allow a safe chemical and clean energy economy to flourish.”

And although EID has noted it several times before, it bears repeating that study co-author Susan Nagel actually appealed to anti-fracking activists Josh FoxMark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono to help her team fundraise for their research after their work was rejected by the National Institutes of Health for not being “good enough to be funded.” She also publicly endorsed Gasland in a talk entitled “What the Frack?” in which she called Josh Fox’s completely debunked films “educational” because they contain “a lot of good information.” 

#3. Study included no baseline sampling or sampling from a non-producing region

Pavillion has long had water quality issues that pre-date both fracking and oil and gas development in general.

That said, it would only seem logical for the researchers to have at least included samples from non-drilling areas for comparison with the samples taken in producing regions. But Kassotis told the Casper Star-Tribune, quite plainly, that, “We didn’t have a good non-drilling area in Wyoming to compare to. We don’t have a baseline,” which only adds to the inconclusive nature of the report’s alarmist conclusions.

This explanation has drawn at least one red flag from Petroleum Association of Wyoming vice president John Robitaille, who told Star-Tribune, “There’s no way to tell me that what they found wasn’t there prior to development.”

#4. We’ve seen this one before

EID has noted several times before how activists have spent years pushing fracking contamination claims in Pavillion based on a single draft EPA report from December 2011, which theorized a link between fracking and groundwater contamination. As history recalls, EPA’s theory came under fire almost immediately, as state, federal and industry officials found serious flaws in the data EPA used to support it. At the time, EPA considered contracting independent scientists to further review, but in June 2013, after multiple regulatory officials at the state and federal level had criticized the agency’s findings, the EPA announced it would turn over the work to state regulators in Wyoming.

Post EPA intervention, in 2016, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) published a landmark report that explains there’s no evidence that fracking contaminated groundwater in Pavillion.

And similar to the “zombie” study being extrapolated in the media today, another study with a stretched conclusion was fleshed out by researchers from GSI Environmental who explained that a 2016 report, which suggested oil and natural gas production contaminated water wells in Pavillion, was based on faulty data.

Conclusion

The cumulative shortcomings of this study are as glaring as they are numerous. The researchers didn’t find any actual water contamination; the EDCs detected are found in numerous other everyday produces; and the study was partially funded and conducted by parties with a clear anti-fracking agenda.

All this said, it’s no wonder why the researchers chose Pavillion as the focal point of this “study,” given its well-documented history a centerpiece in the anti-fracking movement’s fruitless efforts to conclusively tie fracking to water contamination.

But despite this cherry-picking, claims that fracking has contaminated groundwater in Pavillion have long been put to rest, and no fewer than two dozen studies have concluded fracking is not a major threat to groundwater. This study’s data further confirms that fact, despite the authors’ best efforts to manipulate the results.

Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) might have summed up this effort best when he told the Star-Tribune, “If that was a prospectus and I was a banker lending money, I wouldn’t lend a penny. They’ve not convinced me they’ve done their homework.”

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