EPA’s fracking study found proven harm, serious risk and inadequate science – so what’s the problem?

Statement on EPA’s draft study of fracking and drinking water by Dusty Horwitt, Senior Counsel, Partnership for Policy Integrity and Dr. Kathleen Nolan, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York


The EPA recently released a draft of its long-awaited study of hydraulic fracturing’s impacts on drinking water, “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.”  The report found that fracking can — and has — contaminated drinking water through several pathways, refuting drilling industry protests that such contamination is impossible.  The report also concluded that data simply don’t exist to make definitive conclusions about how common water pollution from fracking is.


“Data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty,” the EPA stated, adding that of the potential pathways of contamination that the agency identified, “we found specific instances where one or more of these mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.  The cases have occurred during both routine activities and accidents and have resulted in impacts to surface or ground water.”


(Photo credit Earthworks)

The EPA’s findings echo the concerns of state governments, local municipalities and major water providers who have taken stances opposing fracking, at least until the science is better understood.


“The current scientific information is insufficient,” the New York State Department of Health found in justifying its decision not to permit fracking in the state. “Furthermore, it is clear from the existing literature and experience that [high-volume hydraulic fracturing] activity has resulted in environmental impacts that are potentially adverse to public health.”


Major water providers in the Washington DC area supported a Forest Service draft plan to prohibit fracking in the George Washington National Forest because they reached conclusions similar to the EPA’s:  that risks are significant and science is lacking.  The Forest encompasses part of the watershed for the Potomac River, which serves as the major drinking water source for the Washington area.


“Although studies on [hydraulic fracturing] are still needed in order to fully understand the potential impacts on drinking water,” the Washington Aqueduct wrote to the U.S. Forest Service in 2011, “enough study on the technique has been done and information has been published to give us great cause for concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply.”


“In the absence of sound science unique to the meteorological and hydrologic characteristics of the Forest region, we applaud your decision to employ caution on this important issue,” Fairfax Water wrote to the Forest Service in 2011, noting that natural gas development had the potential to impact the watershed in several ways including through the use of “often unknown ‘fracking fluid’ additives.”


In its news release, the EPA promoted a line from the report that the agency “did not find evidence” that fracking “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”  This line was featured in some news outlets, yet the EPA made clear that it lacked the data to make any such conclusion definitively. Sadly, constraints imposed on research by lack of cooperation from oil and gas companies may make obtaining the needed data difficult or impossible until contaminations of catastrophic magnitudes emerge. According to Brooklyn-based Inside Climate News, drilling companies refused to participate in so-called “prospective studies” that EPA had planned for its larger study of fracking and drinking water.  In these analyses, the agency would have sampled drinking water sources before and after fracking to see if there were any change in water quality.  From a public health perspective, no community should be required to demonstrate “widespread, systemic impacts” in order to protect drinking water resources. In fact, at that point, protection can no longer be provided.


EPA’s findings of proven harm, serious risk and inadequate science validate the concerns of those who have taken a cautious approach toward fracking and should inspire further investments in energy efficiency and renewable power.


To comment on the study by Aug. 28, visit here.


Partnership for Policy Integrity