News Feature | January 3, 2017

EPA Responds To Criticism On Fracking, Drinking Water Study

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson


Published amid controversy last month, the U.S. EPA has said that its study on fracking is the most detailed look at the overall science available on whether or not the practice truly pollutes drinking water.

Critics were quick to point out that the report lacked much data. In an interview with NPR’s StateImpact PA, the EPA’s science advisor Tom Burke stated that those data gaps in the report represent the “state of science.”

“The identification of data gaps is actually an important contribution to the science and not a failure,” Burke said.

He added that the EPA is just beginning to understand fracking and that “there are not really a lot of reports about what’s going on during the fracking process,” such as basic information about the location of wells.

Burke also said that “in addition to lack of information about all the shale gas wells, there is a lack of information about locations of groundwater aquifers, and the quality of the water.”

For some time now, Pennsylvania residents who live in shale gas areas have been concerned that fracking could pollute their water. The state has identified “more than 250 cases where shale gas drilling and production did contaminate drinking water.”

In 2010, Congress ordered the EPA to investigate and when the agency announced its new study, it stated that “it would look at the fate of water during the entire gas drilling process, from the moment water gets withdrawn, to the chemical additives, to the injections into the wells to the wastewater transport and disposal.”

Documents that were obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace in November show that six weeks before the study's public release, “officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of ‘widespread systemic impacts’ of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation's drinking water.”

Earlier versions of the report “emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.”

In the report, the EPA used the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock as one of its case studies. Dimock was already receiving attention after gas drilling there led to unsafe levels of methane spreading into the drinking water of residents, according to StateImpact.

In December, the EPA concluded that “badly constructed wells, frack water spills, and poorly treated wastewater can contaminate drinking water.”  In the case of Dimock, the agency said that poor well construction led to methane migration.

“I wish the report had more data in it,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University, who spoke to StateImpact.

“I wish they had done more work trying to figure out how frequently, how often things happen rather than just talking about what can, could and has happened,” Jackson said. “That’s important but it’s not enough. If the EPA can’t do it, who can?”

To read more about fracking visit Water Online’s Produced Water Treatment Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Fracking LA, October 2013" Lorenia © 2013 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: