EPA science panel faults agency’s drilling-water study

AP file photo
This Jan. 17, 2013 file photo shows a fracking site in New Milford, Pa.

A panel of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency science advisers is strongly criticizing last year’s much-cited EPA report that agency officials had tried to tout as finding that the nation’s natural gas drilling and production boom had not led to “widespread, systematic” impacts on drinking water supplies.

In a draft report, an EPA Science Advisory Board panel express concerns that “regarding the clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings” presented in an EPA Office of Research and Development assessment of the natural gas industry’s effects on drinking water quantity and quality. The panel warned that some of the major findings “are inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed” in the report.

Of particular concern, the panel said, was a statement in the assessment’s executive summary that EPA “did not find evidence that hydraulic fracturing mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

The science panel said it was concerned that the statement “does not reflect the uncertainties and data limitations” described in the full EPA study. The science board is reviewing the EPA assessment before it is finalized.

When the draft EPA assessment report was released last July, agency press officers had actually gone even further, declaring that the assessment “shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

EPA’s press statements were seized upon by gas industry officials, who said they showed their current practices were safe. Agency science officials, though, quickly tried to distance themselves from the way those findings were portrayed.

The report was a key development in the controversy over the natural gas boom. Congress ordered the study in 2010, as natural gas production in places like the Marcellus Shale region in West Virginia skyrocketed amid the increased use of a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is part of the process of preparing a well for production by pumping huge volumes of water and chemicals underground to split open rock formations to loosen oil and gas flow.

In its draft report, the science panel says that while EPA “aimed to develop national-level analyses and perspective, most stresses to surface or groundwater resources associated with stages of [hydraulic fracturing] are localized.

“For example, the impacts of water acquisition will predominantly be felt locally at small space and time scales,” the draft report said. “These local-level hydraulic fracturing impacts can be severe, and the draft assessment report needs to do a better job of recognizing the importance of local impacts.”

The science panel also faulted EPA for, among other things, not completing so-called local studies that examined the before-and-after impacts of natural gas production activities.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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