Science Board Checks EPA on Fracking Water Study

Last August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a draft of their long-awaited study of water pollution from fracking. Readers of the 1000+ page voluminous report were treated to a parade of horribles describing numerous incidents of water contamination from across the country.

Yet the headline from the EPA’s press release belied that conclusion: 

Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources

The EPA report is currently undergoing a peer review process from their Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB is holding open meetings and has made their initial suggestions available for public comment.

Widespread, Systemic Water Pollution

SAB pushed back against EPA’s headline. During their first public meeting back in October, SAB listened to our friends’ stories from Pavilion, WY, Parker County, TX, and Dimock, PA. In each case, EPA conducted investigations finding water contamination from hydraulic fracturing only to later turn away from the impacted communities. When SAB heard this, no one could deny we have a widespread and systemic problem. As a result, SAB implored EPA to include their investigations of these incidents in their report.

The Known Unknowns

Almost as compelling as the report’s contents, are the data the report leaves out. SAB and EPA both acknowledge that part of the problem comes from the industry’s abuse of Confidential Business Information (CBI) protections to withhold chemicals, health, and safety studies from public scrutiny. One SAB member even questioned the utility of CBI at all.

These so-called trade secrets keep information secret only from regulators and the public. That is, oil and gas companies know perfectly well what their competitors do. The industry also conceals their damage through nondisclosure agreements and other aggressive litigation tactics.

SAB further notes that other significant data gaps stem from the oil and gas industry’s broad exemptions from parts of several bedrock environmental laws, including our hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Concerned about oil and gas wastes, SAB writes, “…these residuals could be classified as hazardous waste under RCRA rules based on their concentrations”, but the exemption leaves huge gaps in what we know about actual industry practices. SAB insists EPA tell us if “… these wastes are simply being disposed of in unknown locations with no records being kept”.

Science Over Politics

EPA should heed their science advisors. The agency owes the public a more complete and accurate description of how widespread and systemic water pollution from fracking has become. Nor can we tolerate the widespread and systemic secrecy the industry uses to cover up their pollution. We appreciate the SAB looking to set the record straight by allowing the real science to trump the communications rhetoric.