The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board gives them an “F” on controversial fracking and drinking water study

By Melanie Houston, Oil and Gas Director

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Chelsea McCormack, OEC Oil and Gas Campaigns Volunteer

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board completed and published their review of the agency’s long-awaited report on drinking water impacts from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” To make a long story short, if the Science Advisory Board were handing out grades, then the EPA report would have received an F. They found a number of flaws with virtually every aspect of the report. 

In case you haven’t been following this issue, here’s is a bit of background. The EPA’s report was released for review in June 2015 and attempted to identify the real and potential risks that hydraulic fracturing practices have on drinking water in the US. The EPA stated in their report summary and press release that there was “no evidence of ‘systemic’ or ‘widespread’ impacts to drinking water.” This was the major headline that the media ran with, despite the fact that the study found clear evidence of water contamination in 3 of the 5 case studies they explored. 

Many groups, including the investigative journalism shop Public Herald, have argued the EPA left out critical case studies in their report.  In Potter County, Pennsylvania for instance, two public drinking water systems have been impacted and at least seven private water supplies contaminated due to ongoing pollution caused by irresponsible natural gas operations. In Parker County, Texas, several scientists confirmed that methane gas found in private drinking water wells occurred from faulty well casings and cement construction during natural gas exploration. 

As it turns out, the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board has recognized some of the same problems. After reading the nearly 1,000 page report, the Advisory Board all but told the EPA to throw it out and start over. The Advisory Board had a number of issues with both the clarity and accuracy of some of the report’s major findings, including their ultimate conclusion that the impacts of fracking are not systematic or widespread. 

Here is a quick rundown of the Advisory Board’s most important recommendations and their reasoning behind them:

Recommendation 1: Complete the Research 

Reasoning - The Advisory Board found that the EPA failed to complete “various assessments, field studies, and other research…” that the EPA had planned to conduct prior to completing their report.

Recommendation 2: Focus More on Local-Level Impacts

Reasoning: In their report, the EPA downplayed the seriousness and severity of local-level impacts in favor of a more positive, but unsupported, national-level conclusion. This is particularly illogical, because, as the Advisory Board noted, most of the impacts of fracking occur at the local-level.

Recommendation 3: Locate Missing Data 

Reasoning: The EPA is simply missing a bunch of data on the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, including complete toxicity reports. They are also missing data on the constituents of fracking fluid wastewater and the safety of those constituents.

Recommendation 4: Revise the Conclusion 

Reasoning - The conclusion that the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources are not systematic or widespread is simply not supported by the data and other evidence presenting by the EPA in their report.

The sheer magnitude of the revisions the Science Advisory Board has recommended all but demands a re-write. While changing the conclusions to match the existing data would be a good start, the agency is going to have to do much more work in the way of comprehensive data collection, thorough analysis, and even consultation with top experts in academia and other government agencies in order to be taken seriously. 

And let’s face it, in order to get this big job done well, it’s going to take serious resources and political will.

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Friday, October 7, 2016 - 3:15pm