Food & Water Watch Sends Fact Free Letter to EPA on Groundwater Study

Anti-fracking activists may not have liked the outcome, but EPA’s science advisors looked at EPA’s groundwater study over the course of several months and in their final recommendations, they did not ask EPA to change its topline finding.

The EPA found, after five years of intensive study that while oil and natural gas development (or indeed any kind of energy development) is not risk free, fracking does not pose an inherent threat to drinking water. As EPA put it, “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

Not to be deterred, a coalition of anti-fracking groups, led by Food & Water Watch, sent a letter today to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking EPA to “correct and clarify” it’s “unsupported top claim.” As is to be expected, their letter is pretty short on the facts. Let’s have a look.

Food & Water Watch Claim: “EPA’s choice to run with the “widespread, systemic” line, without providing a scientific basis for that line, has proven controversial.”

FACT: The scientific basis is abundantly clear. EPA’s landmark study took no less than five years to complete and is known to be one of the most comprehensive studies ever to be done on hydraulic fracturing. As EPA’s Thomas Burke said in a press release,

“It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

Peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study has shown a lack of systemic groundwater contamination from fracking. EPA’s investigation confirmed that fact.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati, who took samples before, during and after shale development, found no groundwater contamination from fracking. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Government Accountability Office, the Groundwater Protection CouncilCalifornia Council on Science and Technology, the Department of Energy, as well as studies by numerous universities, such as MIT, University of Texas at Austin and Yale have come to that same conclusion.

Food & Water Watch Claim: “EPA did not provide a sense of what the agency would have considered “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

FACT: The terms “widespread” and “systemic” are clearly defined and unequivocal. EPA even offers more clarity, noting that while there were some instances of water impacts (not from the process of hydraulic fracturing itself but from related activities, such as well casing failures or fluid spills on the surface), the number of these instances “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Food & Water Watch Claim: “[T]he “widespread, systemic” line is problematic because the EPA failed to explain adequately the impediments to arriving at quantitative estimates for the frequencies and severities of the impacts already occurring. The agency should use the instances of contamination it has documented in the draft assessment to fully explain all sources of data gaps and uncertainties, as well as outline steps that could be taken to fill these gaps and reduce the uncertainties.”

FACT: Food & Water Watch is essentially asking EPA to prove that there aren’t widespread, systemic impacts to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing. The fact that EPA spent five years gathering data and information, and in that time could find nothing to support widespread or systemic impacts on underground sources of drinking water, is indeed evidence of an absence of impact. Importantly, the SAB itself provided no evidence to contradict EPA’s topline finding. If SAB had such evidence, it certainly would have brought it up during the numerous meetings or in the several draft recommendations that the advisory board compiled.

Food & Water Watch Claim: “By dismissing fracking’s impacts on drinking water resources as not “widespread, systemic,” the EPA seriously misrepresented the findings of its underlying study.”

FACT: EPA did not dismiss the instances of water contamination that it found. But again, the EPA said the number of these instances “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” That’s not a dismissal – that’s just a fact.

Food & Water Watch Claim: “Further, the SAB has also recognized the agency’s failure to include information on three high-profile cases of contamination. We support the following statement from the SAB on these cases: ‘The SAB recommends that the EPA should include and fully explain the status, data on potential releases, and findings if available for the EPA and state investigations conducted in Dimock, Pennsylvania; Pavillion, Wyoming; and Parker County, Texas where many members of the public have stated that hydraulic fracturing activities have caused local impacts to drinking water resources.’”

FACT: Let’s just say the facts don’t work to the activists’ advantage in these three cases. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently released the results of its 30-month investigation into water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.  The DEQ concluded that hydraulic fracturing is “unlikely” to have been the cause.  As the report explains,

“Evidence suggests that upward gas seepage (or gas charging of shallow sands) was happening naturally before gas well development.

It is unlikely that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallower depths intercepted by water- supply wellsEvidence does not indicate that hydraulic fracturing fluids have risen to shallow depths intersected by water-supply wells. The likelihood that the hydraulic fracture well stimulation treatments (i.e. often less than 200 barrels) employed in the Pavillion Gas Field have led to fluids interacting with shallow groundwater (i.e. water-supply well depths) is negligible.” (emphasis added)

As EID has noted on many occasions, the case in Pavillion (where poor water quality has been documented since the 1960s) hinged on a single draft EPA report from December 2011, which theorized a link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination. But EPA’s work was widely criticized by state and federal officials. In fact, in subsequent testing, the USGS had more than 50 separate measurements that differed from EPA’s results. USGS also effectively disqualified one of only two monitoring wells used by EPA, due to low flow rates and poor construction. Further, Don Simpson, then-state director for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), suggested EPA’s testing could have introduced “bias in the samples,” adding that the data “should not be prematurely used as a line of evidence that supports EPA’s suggestion that gas has migrated into the shallow subsurface due to hydraulic fracturing or improper well completion until more data is collected and analyzed.”

In the case in Dimock, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) investigated whether oil and natural gas activity was responsible for contamination. To resolve the issue, the DEP ultimately issued a consent decree with the operator, and the agency determined in November 2011 that the operator had fulfilled its obligations under that order. The U.S. EPA agreed in late 2011 “The data does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.” Nonetheless, even with no new data in the case, EPA reversed course shortly thereafter and began a high-profile investigation that attracted significant attention from the news media. The EPA ultimately released four sets of sampling data, and concluded in July 2012 that “there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.”

The Parker County, Texas case made news on December 7, 2010, when then-EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz issued an unprecedented “endangerment order” against Range Resources, alleging that its gas drilling operations had caused methane to enter groundwater. The case had been brought to EPA after video surfaced of a landowner igniting water coming out of a garden hose. However, a district judge later ruled in early 2012 that a consultant named Alisa Rich had convinced the property owner to hook a garden hose up to a gas vent – not the water line – “to provide local and national news media a deceptive video, calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning.” The judge also noted: “This demonstration was not done for scientific study.” Rich had advised the property owner to do this because “it is worth every penny if we can get jurisdiction to EPA.” Subsequent scientific testing through nitrogen fingerprinting, however, proved that the methane was naturally occurring (from the shallow Strawn Formation, not the Barnett Shale), and multiple state investigations determined gas drilling was not to blame. A few weeks later, Armendariz was forced to resign after a videosurfaced of him bragging that his method of regulating the oil and gas industry was similar to how the Romans used to “crucify” villagers. With a mountain of scientific evidence showing EPA’s order to be baseless, the EPA withdrew the order in the spring of 2012.

Further, the Railroad Commission of Texas concluded in 2014,

“The occurrence of natural gas in the complainants’ water wells may be attributed to natural migration of gas from the shallow Strawn Formation, exacerbated by water well construction practices whereby some water wells have penetrated ‘red beds’ in the transition interval between the aquifer and the Strawn Formation. Contribution of natural gas to the aquifer by the nearby Barnett Shale gas production wells is not indicated by the physical evidence…” (emphasis added)



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