EPA Whitewashes Effect of Fracking on Drinking Water


EPA released the final draft of a study last month on the effects on drinking water of fracking (high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and natural gas). The study had been requested by Congress in 2010

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the final draft of a study last month on the effects on drinking water of fracking (high volume hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of oil and natural gas). The study had been requested by Congress in 2010.

An earlier, 2004, EPA study had found that fracking had no adverse effect on drinking water. That conclusion was then used to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, there has been an accumulation of evidence that fracking has substantial negative consequences for a whole range of environmental and health concerns.

The EPA study found no evidence that fracking has caused “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” It goes on to say, however, that, under certain circumstances, wells can leak and cause local contamination of the water table.

Energy industry representatives and political supporters of fracking have taken this as constituting a “clean bill of health” for the process, the use of which has expanded explosively over the last few decades.

Fracking is now taking place across substantial portions of the US, from California to Pennsylvania and Texas to the Dakotas, bolstering the position of the US as a major oil and gas producer. There are fracking wells in half of US states, with at least 12.2 million people living near or drinking water from a source within a mile of a fracked well. In Pennsylvania alone there are currently about 8,800 active fracking wells.

The EPA report is consistent with the Obama administration’s long-established support for fracking (see: White House announces pro-corporate fracking rules).

The EPA’s analysis is narrow in scope and the language carefully crafted so as to appear to say more than it really does. While stating that the numbers of documented incidents is low compared to the number of wells, the report represents an acknowledgement that contamination does occur, a fact that has long been denied by fracking supporters.

Furthermore, the agency acknowledges that there are gaps in the data on which its findings are based. This is the result of insufficient numbers of independent field studies, because much of the data is derived from industry self-reporting, and because the industry habitually settles lawsuits with payments that are tied to gag orders preventing those injured from discussing their cases. In one notorious example, a lifetime ban on public comment encompassed not only the parents, but also their minor children (see: Gas drilling company imposes lifetime gag order on Pennsylvania children).

The study cites a range of weaknesses that can cause serious problems, including inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below-ground migration of gases and liquids; inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources; and spills of hydraulic fluids and wastewater. Numerous examples of such failures are cited by the EPA. There is little information regarding how the integrity of fracking wells holds up over time. Many wells continue to be used significantly past their originally projected use life. As oil and gas prices continue to fall, there will be growing pressure to increase efficiency (i.e., cut corners), increasing the potential for accidents and equipment failures.

Furthermore, while the proportion of incidents is supposedly low, the severity of the consequences can be quite high, given the witch’s brew of toxic and carcinogenic materials involved. Over a thousand different chemicals are used in varying mixtures at sites across the country. The long-term effects on health and the environment of 92 percent of these chemicals are unknown.

EPA representatives were careful to state that their report was not a pronouncement on whether fracking is safe.

Source: wsws

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