Blogs > Don't Frack with New York > What does the EPA study tell us about the impact of fracking on drinking water resources?

What does the EPA study tell us about the impact of fracking on drinking water resources?

Jake Hays
Director of the Environmental Health Program, PSE Healthy Energy
Legal Associate, Riverkeeper

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited draft assessment on hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on drinking water resources. For the first time, the EPA explicitly acknowledged that hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and its related activities have been responsible for drinking water contamination on numerous occasions and by a variety of mechanisms. Despite how it has been presented in the media, the report was not designed to determine whether fracking is safe, but rather to assess impacts to drinking water resources and to identify potential risks and environmental migration pathway mechanisms.

As the EPA acknowledged, the data in this report are limited and there are numerous factors that prevent us from fully understanding the severity of the risks to water resources. The report highlights the inaccessibility of some information, likely a result of the lack of industry cooperation throughout the study, and the dearth of long-term systematic studies and pre- and post-fracturing data on water quality. It also does not review information contained in federal and state enforcement actions alleging contamination of drinking water. Indeed, the EPA itself has shelved a number of ground water contamination studies from around the country, including Pavilion, Wyoming, Weatherford, Texas, and Dimock, Pennsylvania and abandoned all prospective studies that would have incorporated baseline data. We simply do not know how often contamination events have actually occurred and there is no national database for keeping track of these data.

Despite the limitations of its report, the EPA chose to proclaim an absence of “widespread, systematic impacts to drinking water resources in the United States” in its press release. The insufficiency of the data as well as the limited scope of this investigation should have precluded such a statement. Researchers cannot find something they do not look for, and to suggest that an absence of data implies an absence of impacts is scientifically irresponsible.

So what did the report find? For one, it confirmed numerous instances of drinking water contamination from spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids, discharge of treated wastewater, and below ground movement of fluids. Further, it suggests that water contamination can and does occur during routine activities, not just accidents. In other words, many of the impacts to water quality from hydraulic fracturing and its associated operations are unavoidable.

Ironically, despite these findings industry supporters and some policymakers who have previously claimed that fracking has never led to water contamination now point to this report to suggest that fracking is safe. It appears they are satisfied with the fact that the available data does not show widespread contamination of drinking water. More importantly, aside from impacts to drinking water supplies, there is other, current evidence that clearly demonstrates that fracking, as it’s done now, is not safe. In addition to water quality, there have been many documented impacts in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on air quality, the climate, and public health. For instance, an emerging body of epidemiology consistently points to both potential risks and actual harm to neonates and adult populations. A recent study (Stacy et al. 2015) revealed that mothers who live in closer proximity to fracked wells are more likely to have babies with lower birth weights, which is consistent with other results that show an association between unconventional natural gas development and adverse birth outcomes (McKenzie et al. 2014; Hill 2013).

As the environmental and public health risks of fracking and its associated activities are becoming increasingly well established in the scientific literature, there is a strong need for additional, large-scale studies to further explore potential impacts. There is also a need for stronger policies to protect the environment and public health. The new EPA assessment does provide, as it claims, a scientific basis for proactive public decisions on how to best protect our water resources going forward. Moreover, now that a the EPA has released a report that not only indicates that fracking and its related activities pose a risk to surface and ground water, but also confirms actual instances of drinking water contamination, shouldn’t policymakers re-examine and revise fracking policies and laws that were enacted in parts of the United States based on claims that fracking has never contaminated groundwater?

The EPA draft report and its related materials, including the press release and executive summary, can be accessed at: http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy.

Submit public comments here (due August 28, 2015).

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