Monday, June 8, 2015

EPA study does NOT say Fracking is "safe"

Five days ago, that would be Thursday, June 4, the EPA released its "Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities". [You can download the complete study - nearly 1,000 pages of it - here.]

This is what some  pro-drilling interests picked up from the press release: "Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources." They would like to believe that the EPA study shows that fracking is "safe".  In fact, "no proven contamination" has been their motto for years.

Unfortunately, early media reports simply parroted what they saw at the top of the EPA press release without reading the details or delving into the executive summary.

Dive in a bit deeper and you learn what the EPA study really says: there are cases in which fracking has impacted drinking water resources, but it is not "widespread and systematic" yet

The EPA study found that fracking activities have the potential to impact our drinking water in these ways:
  • fracking directly into underground water resources
  • withdrawing water in areas affected by droughts or periods of low water availability
  • spills
  • below-ground migration of liquids and gases
  • inadequate treatment and discharge of waste fluids
 The EPA study found “specific instances” where fracking-related activities contaminated drinking water, including water wells. They didn't find it everywhere, but they only studied a handful of communities. EPA admits that their study is limited by the lack of pre- and post-drilling water quality data. They say their study is limited by the lack of long-term systematic studies. They also say that certain information on fracking was not made accessible to them.

If you need a visual image to help you, check out this map that William Huston pulled together from data in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale region.

Map: (C) 2015 WilliamAHuston@gmail.com Share: CC-BY-NC -- All other rights reserved.

This map shows 313 cases where families in the north eastern part of the state reported water contamination. Just six counties. The red areas indicate where the most reports came from. 

Three hundred thirteen might not seem "widespread and systematic", but it demonstrates part of the problem with how the EPA study is interpreted. The impacts are localized. But they are systematic, when you compare where the pollution is with where the drilling occurs.



 



EPA investigators said that they did find “above and below ground mechanisms” through which various stages of what they called “fracking activities” can “have the potential to impact drinking water resources.”
Among those mechanisms: Fracking directly into underground water resources, water withdrawals in areas with or in times of low water availability, spills of various fluids used in or produced by fracking processes, below-ground migration of liquids and gases, and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.
EPA said its investigators found “specific instances” where one or more mechanisms affected drinking water, including contamination of wells. The agency report said the number of identified cases “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” but conceded it wasn’t sure why.
“This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors,” the EPA said. “These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.”
- See more at: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150607/GZ01/150609432#sthash.kYK3RUTA.dpuf
EPA investigators said that they did find “above and below ground mechanisms” through which various stages of what they called “fracking activities” can “have the potential to impact drinking water resources.”
Among those mechanisms: Fracking directly into underground water resources, water withdrawals in areas with or in times of low water availability, spills of various fluids used in or produced by fracking processes, below-ground migration of liquids and gases, and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.
EPA said its investigators found “specific instances” where one or more mechanisms affected drinking water, including contamination of wells. The agency report said the number of identified cases “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” but conceded it wasn’t sure why.
“This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors,” the EPA said. “These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.”
- See more at: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150607/GZ01/150609432#sthash.kYK3RUTA.dpuf
EPA investigators said that they did find “above and below ground mechanisms” through which various stages of what they called “fracking activities” can “have the potential to impact drinking water resources.”
Among those mechanisms: Fracking directly into underground water resources, water withdrawals in areas with or in times of low water availability, spills of various fluids used in or produced by fracking processes, below-ground migration of liquids and gases, and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.
EPA said its investigators found “specific instances” where one or more mechanisms affected drinking water, including contamination of wells. The agency report said the number of identified cases “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” but conceded it wasn’t sure why.
“This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors,” the EPA said. “These factors include: insufficient pre- and post-fracturing data on the quality of drinking water resources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities and an impact; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts.”
- See more at: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20150607/GZ01/150609432#sthash.kYK3RUTA.dpuf

6 comments:

  1. thanks, for this clarity; EPA should have made a better headline that would not lend itself to being mis-interpreted by pro-gassers and used by them....there is contamination of water and air by this toxic industry throughout our country.

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  2. The EPA does not define the terms "widespread" or "systemic." It's difficult to even know exactly what they meant by those terms--they could, conceivably, mean that the contamination hasn't spread beyond fracking areas, or that most of the problems to date have been with private water sources rather than public ones. Since the sentence in question appears early on in the executive summary in a section dealing with major findings, whoever wrote the executive summary almost had to know that some media outlets would seize on that misleading sentence and use it as a headline. The rest of the report certainly does present evidence of numerous problems as well as the potential for still more problems as drilling and fracking continue.

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  3. My concern is with the expectation that any human enterprise will be completely safe. They aren't, not any of them. Farming sends vast amounts of waste down our rivers to kill the Gulf of Mexico. Transportation of goods results in fiery crashed that kill folk and vast amounts of carbon sent into the atmosphere. Medical facilities create mountains of contaminated waste that we have no good ways to get rid of. Manufacturing facilities spill one toxin or another. So on and so forth. One answer might be to carefully document these issues and charge the company for the clean up of the mess they make. If we were really careful and fair about doing so it would create a large incentive for folks to be careful and not make a mess. These technologies are not inherently polluting, but careless people and folks in a hurry are!

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    Replies
    1. Good point. If companies were required to pay for clean-up instead of passing those costs onto the public, I think they would come up with less polluting technology.

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    2. I understand the points that anonymous is making. However, I would argue that fracking shale actually is inherently polluting.

      For one thing, the cement in the well casings has a limited lifetime. So over time, even if each casing is perfect to begin with, there is going to be, at the very least, a significant problem with methane intrusion into nearby water wells. And because little is known about the long-term effects of fracking shale, there may be more inherently polluting problems waiting out there in the future. As an example of an unforeseen consequence that has already occurred, consider the mounting earthquake problem caused by disposal of fracking waste. While experts were certainly aware of the potential for deep injection wells to cause quakes, I don't think there are many people who really anticipated that the problem would be as large as it now appears to be. It was on the radar screen only in a vague, ill-defined way. Now, just a few years later, it's a major issue. What major shale-extraction-related issues will we be looking at 10 years from now, or 50, or 100? High volume, horizontal fracking of shale is a new process and therefore involves many unknowns: some of those unknowns may come back to haunt us in a big way.

      The second problem is that many of the areas that are rich in shale are also fairly heavily populated. This means that people are likely to be harmed, even in the best-case scenario where regulations are comprehensive and tightly enforced. And that best-case scenario never occurs in the real world. In this case, it hasn't even come close to occurring on paper yet, let alone in the real world. And anyway, accidents are going to be unavoidable. When accidents occur at an industrial complex that is bad enough. When they occur in residential areas, it is much worse. There is a reason for residential zoning, but if all gas wells were kept well away from homes, schools, water wells, etc. in the Marcellus Shale region, there probably would not be enough gas well sites left to make the effort profitable.

      The next problem is the cumulative damage inflicted by shale gas extraction. Shale gas wells deplete rapidly, and this results in a very rapid buildout with hundreds or even thousands of wells being drilled in a single county. You cannot drill at this density without inflicting serious harm on the environment--issues such as forest fragmentation, cumulative pollution from facilities such as compressor stations, cumulative pollution from all of the related traffic, etc.--are going to occur no matter what. They are inherent in the process by virtue of the scale of the process.

      Finally, there is the problem of global warming. At this point, ANYTHING we do to encourage our continued reliance on fossil fuels contributes to the slow-moving but potentially catastrophic disaster of global warming. Cheap fossil fuel may sound great right now, but it's going to be very, very costly in the long term--and we are the ones who are going to pay, not the gas/oil industry.

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