SAB Experts Support EPA’s Initial Findings on Water Contamination

Yesterday, the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) met yet again to discuss their recommendations on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) study on water contamination and fracking.  At the end of the seven-hour marathon, several panelists clarified that their critique of EPA’s report does not mean they disagree with the agency’s overall findings, namely that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”  Rather, Drs. Abby Li and Stephen Randtke noted that they take issue with how well supported these findings are by the data they included in the report.

This position is a slight departure from the position of geologist Walter Hufford, who has filed an outright dissent of the SAB’s assessment but it gets at the same point: the EPA’s actual findings are not suspect but they should have been more careful about “showing their work.”   The main point of Mr. Hufford’s dissent is that the EPA’s finding of no contamination linked to hydraulic fracturing is:

“Clear, unambiguous, and concise, and does not need to be changed or modified… while the report could have articulated the agency’s statistical assessment more clearly, there has not been any facts of evidence demonstrating a systemic or widespread impact to existing drinking water resources or any other water resources that may not meet the current criteria of a drinking water resource.”

As of yesterday, many SAB panelists agree with this dissent, including geologist John Fontana and, according to Monday’s call, Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman, Dr. Stephan Almond, and Dean Malouta (all three of which had to leave the call early yesterday and were not present for this portion of the discussion).

This means that there are essentially two camps in the SAB panel that agree with the EPA’s initial assessment: those who are voicing their support for the conclusion via Mr. Hufford’s dissent and those who are fine with the SAB report but want the panel’s response to the EPA to specifically state that their critique is not a critique on the overall findings.   The latter group expressed concern over how their assessment of the EPA’s work would be interpreted by the media and the public in general. As Dr. Abby Li stated yesterday (paraphrased), the media may misinterpret the SAB’s report as a conclusive statement that the EPA’s assessment on water contamination was unsubstantiated, which is not what the SAB is trying to say in their draft assessment.

Indeed this is already happening, with several outlets (here and here) reporting erroneously that the entire SAB, except Mr. Hufford, believes the EPA’s findings to be incorrect.   Unfortunately, these accounts fail to capture the more nuanced opinions of the board’s experts.



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