One of the biggest questions that’s hovered out there since the fracking boom first entered the public’s consciousness about five years ago is this: Is unconventional oil-and-gas drilling safe for the water supply. The industry’s position is that fracking can’t affect people’s drinking water because the extraction process takes place too far below that groundwater level to have an impact. But that’s been contradicted by scores of complaints from actual homeowners with fracking on or near their properties, who’ve filmed themselves lighting their tap water on fire or endured brackish water that, in some cases, has tested positive for pollutants.
To resolve such an important question, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working for the last five years on a massive health assessment of the potential threat to drinking water in America from fracking. The report has been out for little more than a day but already its findings have been widely misinterpreted. It did find that — based on what it admits is far from perfect data — that there is no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” from fracking. But it’s important to note that few environmentalists were making such a broad claim in the first place
There are still many reasons why fracking and water don’t mix. One of the biggest is improper drilling techniques, in which shoddy well casings cause gases such as methane or other highly toxic pollutants to migrate into the water supply. Another, of course, is accidental spills above the surface, a frequent problem. These factors, and others, are what’s behind the steady stream of fracking neighbors who say they can no longer drink their tap water or shower in their home.
The draft EPA report confirmed this. “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,” according to its executive summary.
“The EPA found disturbing evidence of fracking polluting our water despite not looking very hard. This study was hobbled by the oil industry’s refusal to provide key data,” Kassie Siegel, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress.
Here’s another reaction to the report:
“This study provides solid scientific analysis that fracking has contaminated drinking water around the country,” said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst in the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The report, while limited, shows fracking can and has impacted drinking water sources in many different ways.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning outfit called Inside Climate News ran a lengthy analysis after the release of the draft showing how years of industry obstruction severely limited the scope and extent of the research; in the end, the report focuses only on the brief period when water and fracking fluids are injected deep underground, and not the broader oil-and-gas drilling and production processes, where there are multiple opportunities for contamination.
Notes the Inside Climate News analysis:
In the five years since the study’s launch, academic research into fracking’s effect on water has taken off and provided some answers that the EPA study was intended to find. For instance, Duke University researchers found in a June 2013 study that drinking-water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania within a kilometer of fracking had methane concentrations six times greater on average than wells farther away. A July 2013 study by scientists from the University of Texas-Arlington indicated that groundwater near fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale had higher levels of arsenic and other heavy metals.
Could the EPA have sidestepped oil and gas companies and asked homeowners’ permission to monitor their well water near fracking sites, as academics did? No, according to Purchia. Groundwater moves slowly, and the EPA had planned to gather samples near fracking sites for a minimum “of four seasons,” she wrote in an email. Therefore, the EPA needed to place monitoring wells as close as possible to oil and gas wells, which would have meant on company, rather than homeowner, property.
Typically, I tend to trust the work of independent, peer-reviewed academics over government studies that so often bend to the pressure of well-heeled lobbyists. The EPA simply can’t explain away the scores of fracking neighbors who’ve been sickened or who’ve been forced to switch to bottled water. What’s more, while drinking-water safety is a critical hazard of fracking, it is far from the only one. The deep underground injection of fracking wastes has been increasingly linked to earthquakes, radioactive wastewater has been dumped in streams, and even neighbors with untainted water are breathing in polluted air. This EPA’s draft study is a deeply flawed, small step toward increasing our knowledge about fracking, but at this stage of the game most Americans have already seen enough.
Read more about the EPA draft report on fracking and drinking water from Think Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/06/04/3666163/epa-fracking-study-draft-assessment/
More reaction, via the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/04/epa-fracking-study_n_7511836.html?utm_hp_ref=green&ir=Green
Here an in-depth analysis of the EPA report from Inside Climate News: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/02032015/can-fracking-pollute-drinking-water-dont-ask-epa-hydraulic-fracturing-obama-chesapeake-energy
I summarize the damning case against fracking in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice
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