Today, I attended a hearing of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Science, Space and Technology Committee on the topic of quality science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So, I’ll get in to the substance of the hearing, but clearly the highlight was watching Academy award nominated director and anti-fracking celebrity Josh Fox, handcuffed and escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police. House rules don’t allow members of the media to take video during hearings. Josh is filming a sequel to his popular anti-fracking documentary Gasland for HBO due for release this summer. Ranking member Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) twice made formal motions to allow Josh to continue taping arguing that a properly credentialed ABC film crew also requested permission to video tape the hearing. Both attempts were rebuffed.
The hearing considered the efficacy of an EPA report describing water contamination attributed to hydraulic fracturing activities in Pavillion, Wyoming. In reality, this hearing served as another opportunity for the House majority to rail against the EPA. Referring to the EPA’s work as “scientific innuendo” and “regulatory straight jacketing”, the Republicans criticized the report as lacking transparency, peer review, or sufficient consultation with relevant state authorities.
The real story is that in 2008 citizens in Pavillion, WY discovered objectionable tastes and odors in their drinking water. They petitioned the EPA to intervene. The EPA brought in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Concluding that some of the contaminants in the water had the potential for detrimental health effects, ASTDR recommended that Pavillion residents undertake some precautions. Among them, taking showers with the bathroom door open for ventilation to avoid (seriously) spontaneous combustion.
The report itself is a highly technical, carefully detailed scientific study that took more than three years to complete. It is the first time a federal agency has confirmed a link between ground water contamination and fracking activities. As one of the panelists, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, noted, the real problem is that we don’t have sixty years of baseline water testing against which to measure contamination levels.
The report completely dismantles the industry argument that sixty years of fracking has never produced one case of water pollution. This explains why fracking proponents complain the EPA is a political body, conflicted between their dual roles as regulator and scientist. Or suggesting that the EPA conducts “press release science” while calling in to question a yet to be completed comprehensive fracking study to be released this summer.
The report is just a draft. The EPA never made their investigation a secret. EPA has solicited the scientific community to conduct a proper peer review of the findings. EPA has posted on their website all the data from their investigation for all the world to view. They extended the comment period to March 15. While local officials complain they were not properly consulted, the EPA points to their correspondence.
Ultimately, the EPA has no stake in the outcome of this or any other study. They gain nothing from discovering the dangers of fracking. Those who do have political skin in the game- industry, activists, and policymakers- need to show some deference to researchers who try nothing more than explain scientific phenomena. And maybe a little deference to the people of Pavillion who bathe with the knowledge that their shower heads could explode. It is their stake in this issue that should demand Congressional hearings.