EPA: No evidence of 'widespread, systemic' impacts of fracking on drinking water

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, June 4, 2015 - An EPA draft assessment finds that hydraulic fracturing activities in the U.S. are carried out in a way that have not resulted in “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water resources. However, the agency said that there are “potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle” that could affect drinking water.

EPA said its review of available data sources, prepared at the request of Congress, found specific instances where well integrity and fracking-related waste water management affected drinking water resources, but they were small compared to the large number of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells across the country. In March 2015, the FracTracker Alliance estimated more than 1.1 million wells in the U.S. had been drilled using hydraulic fracturing.

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EPA said its report provides information about potential vulnerabilities, some of which are not unique to hydraulic fracturing, to drinking water resources, but was not designed to be a list of documented impacts. 

These vulnerabilities to drinking water resources include:

--Water withdrawals in areas with low water availability;

--Hydraulic fracturing conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources;

--Inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids;

--Inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources;

--And spills of hydraulic fluids and hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including flowback and produced water.

“EPA's draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” said Thomas Burke, the agency's science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of its Office of Research and Development. “It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

The agency said its assessment follows the lifecycle of water used for fracking from acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater (including flowback and produced water), and wastewater treatment and disposal.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the report “confirms what we have known for over 60 years when the process began in Duncan, Oklahoma -- hydraulic fracturing is safe.”

“Despite Congress' intent that the EPA study focus on the actual act of hydraulic fracturing conducted thousands of feet below ground, the agency grossly expanded the scope of the study and still came up empty. Although EPA claims some vulnerabilities may exist, it doesn't take tens of millions of dollars to know that hydraulic fracturing conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources or intentionally spilling fluids into water supplies isn't a good idea, and is why nobody does it. EPA, the United States Geological Survey, and others have said that hydraulic fracturing is indeed safe.”

Also released today were nine peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports. These reports were a part of EPA's overall hydraulic fracturing drinking water study and contributed to the findings outlined in the draft assessment.   Over 20 peer-reviewed articles or reports were published as part of this study.

EPA noted in a news release that states play a primary role in regulating most natural gas and oil development, and that its authority is limited by federal laws including the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Where EPA's exemptions exist, states may have authority to regulate unconventional oil and gas extraction activities under their own state laws, the agency said.

The study will be finalized after review by the Science Advisory Board and public review and comment. The agency said Federal Register Notice with information on the SAB review and how to comment on the draft assessment will be published on Friday June 5.

(This story was updated at 3:55 p.m.)

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