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Fracking research: What's behind EPA's abandoned studies?

Fracking studies have pit the Environmental Protection Agency against the oil and gas industry, which says the agency has over-reached on fracking and that its science has been critically flawed. The recent closing of EPA fracking investigations has some environmentalists worried that the agency is feeling the effects of industry pressure and tight budgets.

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The sampling revealed oil, methane, arsenic, and metals including copper and vanadium 2013 as well as other compounds --in shallow water wells. It also detected a trace of an obscure compound linked to materials used in fracking, called 2-butoxyethanol phosphate (2-BEp).

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The deep-well tests showed benzene, at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols -- another dangerous human carcinogen -- acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel, which seemed to show that man-made pollutants had found their way deep into the cracks of the earth. In all, EPA detected 13 different compounds in the deep aquifer that it said were often used with hydraulic fracturing processes, including 2-Butoxyethanol, a close relation to the 2-BEp found near the surface.[1]

The agency issued a draft report in 2011 stating that while some of the pollution in the shallow water wells was likely the result of seepage from old waste pits nearby, the array of chemicals found in the deep test wells was "the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field."

The report triggered a hailstorm of criticism not only from the drilling industry, but from state oil and gas regulators, who disagreed with the EPA's interpretation of its data. They raised serious questions about the EPA's methodology and the materials they used, postulating that contaminants found in deep-well samples could have been put there by the agency itself in the testing process.

In response, the EPA agreed to more testing and repeatedly extended the comment period on its study, delaying the peer review process.

Agency officials insist their data was correct, but the EPA's decision to withdraw from Pavillion means the peer-review process won't go forward and the findings in the draft report will never become final.

"We stand by what our data said," an EPA spokesperson told ProPublica after the June 20 announcement, "but I do think there is a difference between data and conclusions."

Wyoming officials say they will launch another year-long investigation to reach their own conclusions about Pavillion's water.

Meanwhile, local residents remain suspended in a strange limbo.

While controversy has swirled around the deep well test results -- and critics have hailed the agency's retreat as an admission that it could not defend its science -- the shallow well contamination and waste pits have been all but forgotten.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal government's main agency for evaluating health risk from pollution, has advised Pavillion residents not to bathe, cook with, or drink the water flowing from their taps. Some have reported worsening health conditions they suspect are related to the pollution. They are being provided temporary drinking water from the state in large cisterns.

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