U.S. EPA Finds Only Limited Water Pollution From Fracking

(Bloomberg) — Hydraulic fracturing has contaminated some

drinking water sources but the damage is not widespread,

according to a landmark U.S. study of water pollution risks that

has supporters of the drilling method declaring victory and foes

saying it revealed reason for concern.

The draft analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency,

released Thursday after three years of study, looked at possible

ways fracking could contaminate drinking water, from spills of

fracking fluids to wastewater disposal.

“We conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms

by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to

impact drinking water resources,” the EPA said in the report.

But, “we did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led

to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

The study was commissioned by Congress and represents the

most comprehensive assessment yet of the safety of fracking, a

technique that has led to a boom in domestic oil and gas

production but also spawned persistent complaints about

pollution. Fracking involves the injection of water, sand and

chemicals underground to break apart shale rock and free trapped

oil or gas.

Water Resources

Thomas Burke, the EPA’s top science adviser, told reporters

that given thousands of wells drilled and fracked in the last

few years, “the number of documented impacts on groundwater

resources is relatively low.”

Still, it’s not accurate to say that there have been no

cases of contamination, he said.

“There are instances where the fracking activity itself”

led to water pollution, he said.

The EPA looked at the potential for spills of fracking

fluids, poor wastewater disposal or migration of chemicals shot

underground.

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group,

said the study was a validation of the safety of fracking. It

said it showed existing oversight from state regulators is

working.

“Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the

strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and

industry best practices,” Erik Milito, API’s upstream group

director, said in an e-mail.

Bigger Risk

When the study began much of the focus was on the risk that

chemicals mixed in fracking fluids could flow through

underground fissures and into underground water reservoirs. The

study results show that might not be the biggest risk.

“The process of fracking itself is one risk factor. But in

fact it’s not the biggest one,” said Mark Brownstein, vice

president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Ongoing physical

integrity of the wells and handling the millions of gallons of

wastewater coming back to the surface after fracking, over the

lifetime of each well, are even bigger challenges.”

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources

Defense Council, said the study provides “solid science that

fracking has contaminated drinking water across the country.”

Mall said, however, that a lack of cooperation from

industry meant EPA lacked key data necessary to fully assess its

safety.

Another environmental group, Earthworks, said EPA analysis

points to the need for regulation.

“Now the Obama administration, Congress, and state

governments must act on that information to protect our drinking

water, and stop perpetuating the oil and gas industry’s myth

that fracking is safe,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthwork’s policy

director, in an e-mail.

The EPA said it analyzed more than 950 sources of

information. The study included an analysis of industry-backed

disclosures of the chemicals used in fracking, case-studies of

local communities where homeowners feared their water wells were

contaminated and a review of well construction.

The EPA said as many as 30,000 fracked wells were drilled

annually between 2011 to 2014, as oil production reached its

highest level in more than three decades.

“People in favor of drilling will see this as

vindication,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor

who has tested drinking water near fracking sites in Texas,

Pennsylvania and other states. “People opposed to it will see

this as a whitewash.”

To contact the reporters on this story:

Mark Drajem in Washington at

mdrajem@bloomberg.net;

Jim Snyder in Washington at

jsnyder24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:

Jon Morgan at

jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

Elizabeth Wasserman

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