EPA Panel Pans Finding of No "Widespread" Contamination from Fracking

  • A drilling rig near a farm in Butler County, Pa. Photo: Reid Frazier

November 11, 2015

Five years in the making, the EPA’s own hydraulic fracturing study is nearing completion. The major question: does fracking cause water pollution? The EPA’s answer, released in a draft of the study earlier this year, was “not really”. 

“We did not find evidence," the study reported, that fracking or related activities "have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

That statement was highlighted in the executive summary and became the major takeaway in news reports about the study.

But a new peer review of the report casts doubt on whether the EPA’s scientists have enough evidence to back up the statement.

In red-lined comments made at the end of a three-day meeting in October, an EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel of 30 scientists took issue with the draft paper’s claim that the agency's no "widespread, systemic impacts" claim.  

Dave Dzombak, chair of the SAB panel and Professor of Civil Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, told The Allegheny Front “there was a good deal of discussion of that statement” when the panel met in Washington, D.C. in October.

“The panel as a whole agreed that sentence requires some clarification, with better tie-back into details presented in the report,” Dzombak said.

In its comments, the panel wondered aloud whether the EPA could make a claim on “widespread, systemic impacts” based on the data it had.

“The available information does not support the conclusion that “no evidence” of impacts was found,” the reviewers wrote. “[It] is not clear how this statement reflects the uncertainties and data limitations described in the report’s chapters.”

In individual written comments, reviewers made it clear they felt the EPA shouldn't have made the statement.

“There are about 700 pages (24,000 lines) presenting the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water resources and human health. But only two lines concluding that it is not a universal problem,” wrote E. Scott Bair, Emeritus Professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State University. “Talk about a surprise ending!”

The panel will continue to vet the study into the new year. The EPA scientists who are writing the report will be able to use the peer reviewers’ comments as they finish the report. The EPA says it will finish the report next year.

“The agency uses robust peer review to ensure the integrity of our scientific products,” said Laura Allen, an EPA spokeswoman. “We will use the comments from the SAB, along with the comments from members of the public, to evaluate how to augment and revise the draft assessment.”

In 2010, Congress asked the EPA to look into the potential impacts of fracking on water resources. The 998-page draft represents "the most comprehensive assessment done to date" on fracking, said Dzombak.

Allen called it "an important resource" that will allow "the public to better understand the address any vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities."

The peer reviewers also questioned why the EPA didn’t include more extensive information about the agency’s own studies of alleged water contamination from fracking in three states. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, Pavillion, Wyoming and Parker County, Texas, the EPA initiated studies of cases of alleged contamination after complaints from residents. In all three cases, the EPA terminated its studies.

“The panel as a whole felt those three sites should receive more attention in the final assessment,” Dzombak said.

The lack of detail about these studies “leads to animosity against the EPA and gives the appearance of a lack of credibility of the report,” wrote Elizabeth Boyer, Associate Professor of Water Resources in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Penn State.

The panel also lamented the loss of the EPA’s prospective studies on the impact of fracking on groundwater from the report. The agency had planned to cooperate with oil and gas companies to look at water quality before, during and after fracking. Ultimately, the studies fizzled after the agency could not agree to study parameters with oil and gas companies.