EPA Study: Fracking Puts Drinking Water Supplies at Risk of Contamination

June 5, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Water splash image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its long awaited draft assessment of the impacts that fracking has on the nation’s drinking water supplies — confirming that the process does indeed contaminate water.

“From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” the EPA wrote.
The impacts take a variety of forms, the EPA wrote, listing the effects of water consumption especially in arid regions or during droughts, chemical and wastewater spills, “fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources,” the movement of liquids and gasses below ground “and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.”
The agency wrote that it had documented “specific instances” where each of those problems had in fact happened and some cases where multiple problems combined to pollute water supplies.
Environmental groups welcomed the agency’s central conclusion as vindication.
“Today EPA confirmed what communities living with fracking have known for years,” said Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel. “Fracking pollutes drinking water.”
But they also cautioned that the EPA’s assessment seemed likely to understate the risks associated with fracking, in part because it relied heavily on data that was self-reported by the drilling industry.
So, just how badly has the process contaminated America’s water already, and how big are the risks from more fracking? The EPA can’t say, the draft report concluded.
“We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” the EPA wrote.
But that’s not necessarily because the impacts are in fact rare, the EPA added, but because of the difficulties involved in definitively proving contamination occurred in every case.
“This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors. These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts,” the agency wrote.
Fracking Supporters Try to Spin Study To Their Advantage
Drilling supporters seized on the EPA’s failure to report evidence of “widespread, systemic” pollution, asserting that it shows that fracking is safe.
“After five years of study, the EPA learned exactly what the states, industry and even some of the more competent bureaucrats in the Obama administration have known for some time — hydraulic fracturing is not a threat to drinking water,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement, according to The Hill.
But the EPA’s study itemizes numerous instances where things have in fact gone wrong, describing spills, mishandling of wastewater and the ability of contaminants to travel underground via oil and gas well casings or other cracks and fractures and reach aquifers.
DeSmog has previously reported that EPA was forced to slash plans to test the levels of contamination both before and after a well was fracked because the oil and gas industry failed to make any wells available for testing and pressured EPA to narrow its plans.
“The EPA found disturbing evidence of fracking polluting our water despite not looking very hard,” Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “This study was hobbled by the oil and gas industry’s refusal to provide key data.”
Thomas Burke, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of research and development, downplayed the degree of risk, focusing on the percentage of wells where water was proved to have been contaminated. “In fact, the number of documented impacts to drinking water is relatively low when compared to the number of fractured wells,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
But while the percentages are small, the raw numbers are quite large.
“Between 2000 and 2013, approximately 9.4 million people lived within one mile of a hydraulically fractured well,” the EPA’s study concluded, adding that nearly 7,000 municipal or public water supplies are also close to fracked wells. “These drinking water sources served more than 8.6 million people year-round in 2013,” the agency added.
With that many people living nearby, even a small percentage rate can translate into large impacts.
“Industry data and independent studies tell us that one to six percent of unconventional fracked wells fail immediately, meaning tens of thousands of failed wells litter our country,” Earthworks’ Pagel said. “That’s why industry didn’t cooperate, they know fracking is an inherently risky, dirty process that doesn’t bear close, independent examination.”
Study Scaled Down Repeatedly: EPA Whistleblower
Weston Wilson, who worked for the agency for over 37 years, and who sought whistle-blower protections status after reporting a string of conflicts of interest and major flaws in the EPA’s last major investigation into fracking in 2004, described to DeSmog how the EPA’s current study had been narrowed repeatedly. The study left out key parts of the full process involved in extracting oil and gas from fracked wells, like wastewater pit failures and engineering practices, he noted. And many locations EPA hoped to study early on were dropped along the way.
The EPA’s study also failed to cover another major risk associated with fracking, Wilson pointed out.
“EPA’s science advisory board recommended that the air emissions of unconventional drilling also be investigated,” Wilson noted. “EPA  said it would investigate air but retreated from that position in 2011.”
EPA’s draft report will next be circulated for peer-review and for public comment, meaning that the debate over the agency’s specific findings is only beginning — as is the debate about passing federal regulations for the industry.
“Today’s announcement will be spun by industry lobbyists as a clean bill of health for oil and gas developers around the country,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement according to The Hill.  “Nothing could be further from the truth, as EPA’s own findings have shown. Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”
Others in Congress agreed.
“When it comes to the water we drink, every instance of contamination must be considered serious,” wrote Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado), Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey)  and Paul Tonko (D-New York).  “It is also important to note that this study relied on voluntary reporting, which affects both the quality and scope of the data available.  This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing.”

Sharon Kelly

Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

Tags: EPA, Fracking, fracking water use, oil industry, Pollution Prevention, water