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Produced water from gas drilling in the Marcellus shale. Tara Lohan

By Tara Lohan

We're living beyond our means when it comes to groundwater. That's probably not news to everyone, but new research suggests that, deep underground in a number of key aquifers in some parts of the U.S., we may have much less water than previously thought.

"We found that the average depth of water resources across the country was about half of what people had previously estimated," said Jennifer McIntosh, a distinguished scholar and professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona.

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Ray Kemble of Dimock, Pennsylvania, holds a jug of discolored water from his well, contaminated by nearby fracking operations while standing outside of the U.S. EPA building in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Food & Water Watch

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its widely anticipated final report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, confirming that the controversial drilling process indeed impacts drinking water "under some circumstances." Notably, the report also removes the EPA's misleading line that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

"The report, done at the request of Congress, provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances," the agency stated in a media advisory.

This conclusion is a major reversal from the EPA's June 2015 pro-fracking draft report. That specific "widespread, systemic" line baffled many experts, scientists and landowners who—despite the egregious headlines—saw clear evidence of fracking-related contamination in water samples. Conversely, the EPA's top line encouraged Big Oil and Gas to push for more drilling around the globe.

But as it turns out, a damning exposé from Marketplace and APM Reports revealed last month that top EPA officials made critical, last-minute alterations to the agency's draft report and corresponding press materials to soft-pedal clear evidence of fracking's ill effects on the environment and public health.

Thomas Burke, EPA deputy assistant administrator and science advisor, discussed the agency's final report released Tuesday.

“There are instances when hyrdofracking has impacted drinking water resources. That's an important conclusion, an important consideration for moving forward," Burke told reporters today, according to The Hill.

Regarding the EPA's contentious "national, systemic conclusion," Burke said, "that's a different question that this study does not have adequate evidence to really make a conclusive, quantified statement."

In the new report, the authors heeded to the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board's advice to review the "widespread systemic impacts" line from the June 2015 draft study. The final 1,200-page report omits that line.

"Scientists put that language in the draft report, and scientists made the decision not to include it in the final report based on feedback from the Science Advisory Board and their interpretation of the available science," Burke explained.

The Science Advisory Board also took issue with how the draft report inexplicably omitted three critical fracking-contamination cases—Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming.

As Pavillion rancher and affected landowner John Fenton testified last year, "When EPA launched its national study of fracking's drinking water impacts, we thought they'd look first here in Pavillion where they'd already found pollution. But instead they ignored us without explanation. Science means taking the facts as they are. But EPA seems to be intent on finding the facts to support the conclusion they've already reached—'fracking is safe.'"

These specific cases studies are now mentioned in the final report.

In the new report, the EPA has identified cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle:

  • Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
  • Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
  • Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
  • Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.

Burke said that the EPA's assessment "provides the scientific foundation for local decision makers, industry, and communities that are looking to protect public health and drinking water resources and make more informed decisions about hydraulic fracturing activities."

"This assessment is the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing," he added.

Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry has criticized the report.

“It is beyond absurd for the administration to reverse course on its way out the door," American Petroleum Institute Upstream Director Erik Milito told The Hill. "The science and data clearly demonstrate that hydraulic fracturing does not lead to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. Unfortunately, consumers have witnessed five years and millions of dollars expended only to see conclusion based in science changed to a conclusion based in political ambiguity."

The industry-funded group Energy In Depth added that despite change in the central conclusion, the report still “blows apart the anti-fracking campaign's most common claim, namely that hydraulic fracturing is polluting groundwater all across America."

Meanwhile, public health and environmental groups and activists are saying the opposite.

"At last the EPA confirms what independent science has overwhelmingly determined for years, that drilling and fracking contaminate drinking water," said actor and prominent environmentalist Mark Ruffalo on behalf of the national Americans Against Fracking coalition.

"Across the country, Americans have had their lives turned upside down as fracking has poisoned the water coming out of their faucets and has made their families sick. Now all of our federal and state elected officials need to take action to protect Americans by banning fracking. Water is life," Ruffalo said.

Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman agreed. "The EPA's final report on impacts of fracking on groundwater has concluded what too many Americans already know from personal experience: Fracking has caused lasting harm to drinking water sources throughout the country," Coleman said. "The most important findings from this study is that drilling, fracking, and the use of hazardous chemicals necessary to frack have caused groundwater contamination. This puts to rest the widely repeated lie that fracking is 'safe' and has never caused drinking water contamination."

Julia Walsh from Frack Action said, "The EPA has rightly reported that fracking causes water contamination. For all of the Americans living with this tragedy every day, they are finally validated by the federal government."

Similarly, David Braun, Rootskeeper director, said "Kudos to President Obama's EPA for embracing the science about fracking, which clearly demonstrates serious and inherent problems with the practice."

"The EPA could have bowed to pressure from the oil and gas industry and didn't, however, now that the EPA has acknowledged the serious inherent problems with fracking, it is incumbent upon the Obama Administration to stand with the thousands of Americans who have had their water poisoned, and protect them from this dangerous practice," Braun continued.

Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said that President-elect Donald Trump and his pro-fossil fuels cabinet should take the EPA report to heart.

"By listening to its scientists instead of its political advisors, EPA's fracking study sets an example that we hope, but do not expect, the Trump Administration to follow," Pagel said. "But a Scott Pruitt EPA would have to ignore 5 years of scientific study, and years of community impacts, to do otherwise. Unfortunately for the still suffering citizens of Pavillion, WY, Dimock, PA and Weatherford, TX, their EPA investigations didn't have advisory boards to publicly remind EPA that science trumps politics."

And Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, said that "the EPA has confirmed what we've known all along: fracking can and does contaminate drinking water. We are pleased that the agency has acted on the recommendations of its Science Advisory Board and chosen be frank about the inherent harms and hazards of fracking."

By Americans Against Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board (SAB) today finalized its review of the EPA's June 2015 draft study of fracking's impacts to drinking water resources. For over a year, a panel of 30 scientists, engineers and industry consultants have reviewed the details of the 1,000-page draft report. The panel has taken particular issue with a finding that seemingly came out of left field: the agency's statement that fracking has not led to "widespread systemic impacts" in the U.S.

Tainted water collected from a private drinking water well in PA near a fracking site.

The EPA dismissed fracking's impacts with this line, without any clear, scientific basis of support, and now the EPA SAB has taken the agency to task. The EPA, and independent peer-reviewed studies, have identified many mechanisms of contamination, such as spills, well cementing failures below ground, and complications with waste disposal. For example, the EPA found there was on the order of 15 spills every day somewhere in the U.S., yet chose to dismiss those daily incidents as not a sign of "widespread, systemic" problems.

Affected individuals, public interests groups, and now the independent EPA Science Advisory Board, comprised of the EPA's own scientists, are calling on the EPA to "clarify" and "quantify" the controversial "widespread, systemic" line, or drop the language altogether. The panelists joined affected individuals and various independent experts who submitted comments in taking issue with how the agency ignored three high-profile contamination cases in its study—notably Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming. The agency's omissions were contentious in part because in each case, the EPA prematurely abandoned investigations. Now, the EPA SAB has recommended that the agency include detailed summaries of these critical cases.

"By choosing politics over science, the EPA failed the public with its misleading and controversial line, dismissing fracking's impacts on drinking water and sacrificing public health and welfare along the way," Hugh MacMillan, senior researcher at Food & Water Watch, said.

"We are calling on the EPA to act quickly on the recommendations from the EPA SAB and be clear about fracking's impacts on drinking water resources. The EPA must prioritize the health and safety of the American people over the political interests of the oil and gas industry and its financiers, who have committed hundreds of billions to drilling and fracking in the coming decades. For climate reasons alone, that's a vision for the future that we can ill-afford."

The release of this final report comes on the heels of a massive March for a Clean Energy Revolution at the Democratic National Convention calling for a nationwide ban on fracking, a March 2016 Gallup poll showing that Americans oppose fracking 51-36 percent, and a July 2016 Johns Hopkins Study showing that fracking is linked to increased asthma attacks in Pennsylvania.

A recent peer-reviewed analysis of the science on unconventional oil and gas extraction, of more than 680 peer-reviewed studies, found that, "The great majority of science contains findings that indicate concerns for public health, air quality and water quality." In October of 2015, a partnership of prominent health organizations encompassing nationwide medical and public health experts and scientists released a Compendium of more than 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers, as well as numerous government reports and findings, demonstrating the risks of fracking to public health, air and water quality, birth and infant health, the environment and climate change.

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Residents personally harmed by gas drilling and fracking held a press conference in front of the White House yesterday and delivered 250,000 petition signatures from concerned citizens across the U.S. to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy at EPA headquarters. The residents—including Ray Kemble from Pennsylvania, Steve Lipsky and Shelly Perdue from Texas and John Fenton from Wyoming—were all part of the EPA fracking investigations in their respective states that the EPA abandoned despite evidence of water contamination.

The petitions were collected by Stop the Frack Attack and Americans Against Fracking and its advisory committee member, actor Mark Ruffalo. The petitions demand that the U.S. EPA reopen investigations into fracking-related drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming and provide residents with safe drinking water in the interim.

"Today, I stand with affected community members from Dimock, PA, Pavilion, WY, and Parker County, TX, to call on President Obama and the EPA to re-open the investigations on the link between fracking and drinking water contamination,” said actor and advocate Mark Ruffalo. “The American people expect and deserve a transparent EPA that makes science-based decisions, free from political interference."

This event comes a month after Dimock, Pennsylvania resident Ray Kemble and Susquehanna County resident Craig Stevens delivered more than 50,000 petitions to the EPA asking it to reopen its investigation into the possible connection between gas drilling and water contamination in Dimock.

“Last month, we told EPA officials that we would be back in a month with more petitions,” said Craig Stevens. “Today, we are here to deliver five times our original number of petitions, and we stand here with affected community members from Pavilion,WY, and Parker County, TX, who have been through the same nightmare we have in Pennsylvania.”

“For years now, I have had to live with toxic, poisoned fracked water in my home,” added Ray Kemble, a former gas industry employee and an affected Dimock area resident, who was part of the EPA investigation. “When the EPA finally stepped in and tested my water, I thought ‘Thank God. Someone is finally here to help us.’ But then it became apparent to those of us on the ground that they were playing politics. EPA officials officially told us that our water was safe to drink but then told us off-the-record not to drink it. Now the truth is out and we want justice.”

In late 2010 in Parker County, TX, the EPA’s investigations led it to issue a rare emergency order because at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane. More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate without explaining why. A subsequent Associated Press story reported that although the EPA had scientific evidence connecting the driller, Range Resources, with drinking water contamination, they changed course after political pressure from the company and its lobbyists.

“President Obama told us that we would only extract natural gas if it didn’t pollute our water,” said Steve Lipsky of Parker County, TX. “The EPA knows my water was polluted by fracking, their own investigator told them so. Now I have to truck in my drinking water. President Obama, you need to tell the EPA to reopen its investigations.”

“The purpose of the EPA is to protect us all from these types of health and safety hazards,” said Shelly Perdue, of Parker County, TX, whose water and air have also been contaminated with methane. “The methane at my house is 18 times the explosive level. It’s time for President Obama and Gina McCarthy to stand up for our communities.”

More recently, the EPA abandoned its fracking study  in Pavillion, WY, which found benzene, a known carcinogen, at 50 times the level that is considered safe. However, even with this evidence, the EPA handed its investigation over to the state of Wyoming, whose lead politicians have vocally supported fracking. Moreover, this research will be funded by EnCana, the very company whose drilling and fracking operations may have caused the groundwater contamination in question.

“The EPA conducted an investigation into the contamination of our aquifer, and discovered that drilling was responsible,” said John Fenton a rancher from Pavillion. “But rather than finish, they knuckled under to political pressure and turned the investigation over to the very state and company that denied there was a problem in the first place. President Obama needs to tell the EPA to reopen its investigations.”

This action follows the one million public comments delivered to Obama Administration against fracking on public lands as part of a growing movement demanding that the Obama Administration do its job in protecting Americans from dangers of fracking.

Organizations involved in the EPA petition delivery include: Berks Gas Truth, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Earthworks, Energy Action Coalition, Environmental Action, Food and Water Watch, Frack Action, Gasland, MoveOn.org, Public Citizen and Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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