EPA finding of no ‘widespread, systemic’ problems under fire

By Mike Soraghan | 11/04/2015 07:37 AM EST

U.S. EPA’s science advisers are criticizing the agency’s June announcement dismissing the dangers to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing.

U.S. EPA’s science advisers are criticizing the agency’s June announcement dismissing the dangers to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing.

They are saying the assertion that EPA’s study shows fracturing hasn’t led to "widespread, systemic" problems with drinking water from fracturing needs to be changed, because the terms are ill-defined.

"There’s agreement the sentence needs to be modified," said David Dzombak, a Carnegie Mellon University professor chairing the EPA scientific advisory panel conducting a peer review of the agency’s hydraulic fracturing study, released in June. "The sentence is ambiguous and requires clarification."


Some members of the panel have said that more weight should be given to the "severity of local impacts" on water supplies.

The panel is months away from finishing its work, which would be a recommendation to EPA, not an order.

But the panel is also recommending that the study include more about three major EPA investigations into water contamination near drilling sites that were scuttled by EPA higher-ups.

The assertion of no "widespread, systemic" problems was the top-line finding of EPA’s years-in-the-making study of hydraulic fracturing and its effects on drinking water.

The study’s executive summary said that researchers "did not find evidence" that fracturing activities led to "widespread, systemic impacts" on drinking water. The agency’s press release stepped up the level of certainty with a headline saying the study "shows" fracturing activities "have not led" to systematic problems.

To industry, it was a clean bill of health, though the study did say there had been instances of contamination from fracturing. The press release from the American Petroleum Institute (API) said the study "confirms safety" of fracturing.

Green groups seethed about the EPA headline, saying it turned a lack of evidence into proof that "fracking" is benign. They sought to emphasize what EPA’s release had downplayed — that there were instances of contamination.

The Scientific Advisory Board panel reviewing the fracturing study met last week in Washington, D.C., to hear testimony and discuss possible recommendations. But even before the session, the fracturing study’s top-line conclusions were the subject of criticism. Materials prepared for the meeting, based on previous discussions by the reviewers, said the assertion of no "widespread, systemic" problems was "of particular concern" to the panel.

"Some of the major findings are ambiguous or are inconsistent with the observations/data presented in the body of the report," the preliminary materials said.

Pennsylvania State University professor Elizabeth Boyer noted in preliminary materials that the "widespread, systemic" assertion was "widely quoted and interpreted in many different ways." She said "the executive summary and press materials should be carefully reworded" to be more clear.

The criticism continued during the meeting.

"That particular sentence in the executive summary got a good deal of discussion," Dzombak said.

Notes made during the meeting cautioned against making only "national level generalizations" while excluding local incidents.

"The report needs to acknowledge more clearly the distinction between the low frequency of national impacts vs. the severity of local impacts," the notes state.

Conclusion is ‘sound’ — API

Any attempts to revise the assertion of no "widespread, systemic" problems would likely be met with resistance from the oil and gas industry.

API, the industry’s biggest lobbying group, told the panel that the conclusion of no systemic problems is "sound." But if anything, API executive Erik Milito said, the study was too critical of fracturing.

Milito said the absence of evidence of contamination should be viewed more strongly as proof that there has been no contamination. And in some instances, he said, the study implied the possibility of pollution despite a lack of data.

"The draft assessment report is full of conclusory statements, which are ripe in innuendo, but unsupported by data," Milito wrote. "If data is lacking to conclusively demonstrate an impact occurred, then the lack of data does not mean that impacts will result."

Milito’s written comments also protested the inclusion of sampling from a water contamination investigation in Pavillion, Wyo., despite what he said were "well-documented flaws."

Pavillion is one of the three contamination investigations the science advisers want to see covered more fully in the report. The panel’s materials note that they have received many public comments about Pavillion, along with controversies in Dimock, Pa., and Parker County, Texas.

"As these seem to occupy the hearts and minds of much of the public," the board materials state, "meaningful discussion of causes, conclusions and plans for remediation should be specifically discussed."

Click here for committee materials showing comments from last week’s meeting.

Click here for materials developed in advance of the meeting.