Friday, June 25, 2010

EPA Whistleblower Talks "Fracking" with Marcellus Environmental Leaders

EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson addressed hydraulic fracturing concerns with environmental leaders on Saturday, June 19. The 150-or-so environmental activists came from across the Marcellus Shale region - New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia  - for a summit hosted by the Coalition to Protect New York
(CPNY). Sessions focused on a diversity of land issues and health concerns, but the central focus was fracking.

Wilson, an environmental engineer with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed what went wrong with the 2004 EPA report on hydraulic fracturing of coal bed methane reservoirs. EPA scientists proved that there was a risk of benzene and other toxic chemicals migrating into ground water from drilling activities. 

But, Wilson said, heavy industry influence on the panel reviewing the report suppressed this data from the final report. The 2004 study is flawed. And it is those flawed findings that were used by congress to exempt the process of hydro-fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“Things have changed now,” Wilson said. “The EPA is beginning a new study on hydro-fracking, but even with $1.9 million it is underfunded.” The new study promises to be broader in scope, looking at impacts of the entire life cycle of gas drilling. And it won’t be limited to coal bed methane, Wilson pointed out. The new study promises to be more transparent, too, and peer-reviewed. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, Wilson warned. The EPA isn’t interested in studying Dimock, PA or Hickory, or Pavillion, Wyoming, or any of the places that have already experienced water contamination related to drilling activities.

Fracking presents risks

Wilson listed a number of risks that drilling dependent on high-volume hydraulic fracturing presents. Spills – especially spills of undiluted fluids or chemicals – topped his list. While he admitted that the bulk of fracturing fluid is benign, Wilson pointed out that chemicals are added to thicken and thin the drilling mud as needed. The storage and movement of these undiluted chemicals produce an opportunity of risk, he said.

Storing frack fluid in pits creates pathways of exposure via both an air and water. Air emissions, from the volatile chemicals in the fluid, present a temporary risk – unless you are a worker suffering chronic exposure to the chemicals. Leaking pits create long-term risks that may remain hidden for decades.

Fracking fluids can also mobilize toxics that are present in the rock formation, such as radon and other Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM). Production fluids – the brines that come out of the rock formation – contain both frack and formation toxics.

Wilson's advice:

  • Make sure that your state requires ground-water testing and monitoring prior to drilling – ambient air monitoring, too.
  • Support the current EPA Fracking Study (see below).
  • Support the FRAC Act 
  • Support a state moratorium (especially people in NY)
  • Ensure that science is done by those who do not have a financial interest in the industry

EPA Public Meetings on Hydraulic Fracturing Study

EPA is hosting four public information meetings on the proposed study of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and its potential impacts on drinking water. The meetings will provide public information about the proposed scope and design of the EPA “Fracking Study” and will offer an opportunity for local residents to comment on the draft study plan.

While hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing natural gas, the EPA notes that serious concerns have been raised about the potential impact of fracking on drinking water, human health and the environment. To address these concerns, EPA announced in March that it will study the potential adverse impact that hydraulic fracturing may have on drinking water.

To support the initial planning phase and guide the development of the study plan, the agency sought suggestions and comments from the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB)—an independent, external federal advisory committee. Now they are inviting individual citizens, communities, tribes, state and federal partners, industry, trade associations, environmental organizations and other stakeholders to provide input to guide the design of the study.

Find a Meeting near You:

July 8, 2010  in Fort Worth, TX 
  at the Hilton Fort Worth, 815 Main Street 
  6:00 – 10:00 pm

July 13, 2010 in Denver, Colorado
  at the Marriott Tech Center, 4900 South Syracuse Street 
  6:00 – 10:00 pm

July 22, 2010 in Canonsburg, PA
  at the Hilton Garden Inn, Pittsburgh/Southpointe, 1000 Corporate Drive
  6:00 – 10:00 pm

August 12, 2010  in Binghamton, NY
  at the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts, Osterhout Concert Theater
  8:00 am – 12:00 pm
  1:00 – 5:00 pm
  6:00 – 10:00 pm

If you want to make oral comments you need to pre-register at least 72 hours before the meeting. Register online at (scroll down to “informational public meeting”). If you have neighbors who lack computer access, tell them to register by calling 1-866-477-3635

You may also submit written comments at the meeting; by e-mail to; or mail written comments to  Jill Dean, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Mailcode 4606M, Washington, DC  20460.

To learn more, visit


  1. Coal bed methane is very different geology from the Marcellus shale. For one thing it is a lot shallower and actually overlaps the groundwater aquifer.

    I continue to be puzzled that western drilling is so readily compared to eastern drilling. The regulatory environment is completely different.

    As the film "Split Estate" showed, many western landowners only ever owned the surface of their property, allowing drillers to drive right onto it and do what they want without a lease.

    Much western drilling also takes place on federal land where states have no jurisdiction and the EPA has never been acknowledged as much of an enforcement organization. Furthermore, many of these very Republican western states have minimal environmental regulations, especially as regards oil and gas, which are indifferently enforced.

    It is broadly acknowledged that New York is one the most restrictively regulated states in the country, and more regulated than its neighbor Pennsylvania.

    There is no doubt that the pressure should be kept on the DEC to heavily regulate unconventional gas drilling, but I'm not sure how repeated claims that they are lax, in cahoots with the gas companies and generally bad at their job is going to help anything.

  2. Bill, you are right about CBM being different from Marcellus Shale - and that is a huge argument for doing a better "frack" study. If you can't compare CMB to Marcellus, then you can't really rely on a study that was so limited in scope.
    Also, not to put too fine a point on it, Trenton-Black River (dolomite) and Oriskany & other sandstones are very different from the black shales. So we should not be comparing the kind of stimulation used in those operations with the high-volume hydro-fracking that will be used in the tight shales.
    More to the point, however, are the accusations that science was suppressed by industry pressure in the 2004 EPA study. We need a good study with good science.

  3. Sue,

    The fact that the rank and file at the DEC handed in comments to the SGEIS, saying 'This needs more study' is all I needed to be convinced that it needs more study.

    The entire point of the supplement to the 1992 GEIS was that the DEC recognized that the slickwater fracking is different from the horizontal drilling that they use in the Trenton-Black River (which is a conventional play albeit with sequential reservoirs trapped in en eschelon vertical joints capped by a dolomite layer).

    It seems odd to me that anyone would expect the oil industry to play fair and not suppress an EPA study. All industries do this. People think that the computer industry isn't suppressing government studies of various stripes? That the recording industry isn't doing this? They food industry? The health care industry? That's just industry for you.

    Everyone acts like Leo Durocher was right ("Nice guys finish last") although folks like Ben & Jerry and Google seem to prove them wrong.