"Hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources."
Or so says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) press statement announcing the release of the agency's draft report on the risks to drinking water from fracking, and a legion of stories in the popular press that followed.
But is that what the scientific study itself found? (Spoiler alert: no)
A thorough review of the study suggests that the EPA misrepresented the findings of its own study in both the press release and the high-level summary. EPA's statement that it did not find evidence of widespread, systematic impacts fails to accurately reflect the uncertainty in the underlying data.
The fact is that EPA cannot say with any certainty how widespread or systematic impacts to drinking water from fracking are, due to a lack of available data.
Problem Number One: EPA's Press Statement
In an attempt to summarize this high-level finding from the study's Executive Summary, "We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States," EPA's press statement changed the meaning.
As I explained in my blog on the report, not finding evidence of impacts is not the same thing as not finding impacts. EPA's press statement fails to accurately communicate this finding.
Problem Number Two: the Executive Summary
The bigger problem is, however, that finding itself. It does not faithfully summarize the results of the study.
EPA's ability to find evidence of impacts—let alone evaluate the frequency of those impacts—was seriously thwarted by a lack of available data. And when you read all 998 pages of EPA's study, not just the press release or Executive Summary, you find this confirmed over and over again. Here's a sample of the many places in the draft study where EPA made clear that they didn't have enough data to determine the presence of impacts, which in turn makes it impossible to determine the frequency or regularity of such impacts:
However, due to a lack of available data, little is known about the prevalence and severity of actual drinking water impacts. (p. 5-42)
The data contain few post-spill analyses, so ground water contamination may have occurred but have not been identified. (p. 5-46)
There was no reported sampling of soil or ground water to determine whether or not chemicals migrated into the soil. (5-69)
The lack of information regarding the composition of chemical additives and fracturing fluids, containment and mitigation measures in use, and the fate and transport of spilled fluids greatly limits our ability to assess potential impacts to drinking water resources. (p. 5-73)
There is a lack of baseline surface water and ground water quality data. This lack of data limits our ability to assess the relative change to water quality from a spill or attribute the presence of a contaminant to a specific source. (p.5-74)
There are documented chemical spills at fracturing sites, but a lack of available data limits our ability to determine impacts. (p. 5-74)
There are other cases in which production wells associated with hydraulic fracturing are alleged to have caused drinking water contamination. Data limitations in most of those cases (including the unavailability of information in litigation settlements resulting in sealed documents) make it impossible to definitively assess whether or not hydraulic fracturing was a cause of the contamination in these cases. (p. 6-53)
Subsurface monitoring data (i.e., data that characterize the presence, migration, or transformation of fluids in the subsurface related to hydraulic fracturing operations) are scarce relative to the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells that are estimated to be hydraulically fractured across the country each year (see Chapter 2). (p. 6-56)
These limitations on hydraulic fracturing-specific information make it difficult to provide definitive estimates of the rate at which wells used in hydraulic fracturing operations experience the types of integrity problems that can contribute to fluid movement. (p. 6-56)
Although it is collected in some cases, there is also no systematic collection, reporting, or publishing of empirical baseline (pre-drilling and/or pre-fracturing) and post-fracturing monitoring data that could indicate the presence or absence of hydraulic fracturing-related fluids in shallow zones and whether or not migration of those fluids has occurred. (p. 6-56)
Given the surge in the number of modern high-pressure hydraulic fracturing operations dating from the early 2000s, evidence of any fracturing-related fluid migration affecting a drinking water resource (as well as the information necessary to connect specific well operation practices to a drinking water impact) could take years to discover. (p. 6-56)
Because some components of hydraulic fracturing fluid are proprietary chemicals, and subsurface reaction products may be unknown, prior knowledge of the identity of analytes may not be available. Consequently, studies may be limited in their ability to determine the presence of either unknown or proprietary constituents contained in flowback or produced water simply because of the lack of knowledge of the identities of the constituents. (p. 7-14)
Of the volume of spilled flowback and produced water, 16 percent was recovered for on-site use or disposal, 76 percent was reported as unrecovered, and 8 percent was unknown. The potential impact of the unknown and unrecovered volume on drinking water resources is unknown. (p. 7-33)
A key parameter that is unknown is the number of crashes which impact drinking water resources, so definitive estimates of impacts to drinking water resources cannot be made. (p. 7-39)
Despite various studies, the total number of spills occurring in the United States, their release volumes and associated concentrations, can only be roughly estimated because of underlying data limitations. (p. 7-45)
Extensive characterization of produced water is typically not part of spill response, and therefore the chemicals, and their concentrations, potentially impacting drinking water resources are not usually known. (p. 7-46)
These unauthorized discharges represent both documented and potential impacts on drinking water resources. However, data do not exist to evaluate whether such episodes are uncommon or whether they happen on a more frequent basis and remain largely undetected. (p. 8-20)
In addition, unauthorized discharge of wastewater is a potential mechanism for impacts on drinking water resources. Descriptions of several incidents and resulting legal actions have been publicly reported. However, such events are not generally described in the scientific literature, and the prevalence of this type of activity is unclear. (p.8-58)
Unauthorized discharges of hydraulic fracturing wastewater have been documented; such discharges could potentially impact drinking water resources, but estimates of the frequency of occurrence cannot be developed with the available data. (p.8-68)
Monitoring of surface waters, even screening with a simple TDS proxy such as conductivity, would be needed to help assess how often hydraulic fracturing activities (including spills or discharges of wastewater) affect receiving waters; such data are lacking except for some studies in the Marcellus Shale region. (p. 8-73)
There are several notable uncertainties in the chemical and toxicological data that limit a comprehensive assessment of the potential health impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. (p. 9-37)
This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty. There is a high degree of uncertainty about whether the relatively few instances of impacts noted in this report are the result of a rarity of effects or a lack of data. (p. 10-17)
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Anne-Sophie Brändlin
1. My Octopus Teacher (2020)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="43d618cfe4dea9f32fdb2880868a6f5f"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3s0LTDhqe5A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>No person has ever gotten as <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/my-octopus-teacher-movie-2647785692.html">close and intimate with a wild octopus</a> as South African filmmaker Craig Foster, who decided to head out to an underwater kelp forest in the Atlantic Ocean every day for an entire year to capture the life of the mesmerizing creature. An unusual, touching friendship develops that will likely change the way you see your relationship to animals and the planet.</p>
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7. Virunga (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6922c47a9603f24dd431f6e5282f7cb5"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wxXf2Vxj_EU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the only places in the world where you can still find wild mountain gorillas. But the park and its inhabitants are under attack from poachers, armed militias and companies wanting to exploit natural resources. This gripping doc follows a group of people trying to preserve the park and protect these magnificent great apes.</p>
8. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9b7e7a93c26b3a3fc4f8a8374d98e2f2"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nV04zyfLyN4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This crowdfunded documentary explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and investigates why the world's leading environmental organizations are too afraid to talk about it. The film has caused controversy by suggesting that animal agriculture is the primary source of environmental destruction and the main emitter of greenhouse gases, rather than fossil fuels.</p>
9. Years of Living Dangerously (2014)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="585f966df408ae57e3e31747a6c0a66b"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/juXzfwvVHZQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>In this Emmy-winning documentary series, celebrity correspondents travel the world to interview experts and scientists on the climate crisis and its effects. But rather than focusing on its star power, the two-season series also shines a spotlight on ordinary people affected by the climate crisis and shows how we can save our world for future generations.</p>
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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