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Fracking’s threat to drinking water is getting little EPA scrutiny, studies find

Inspection programs are hindered by inadequate staffing and funding, as well as inadequate data collection on chemicals and methods being used at wells.

A diagram in the GAO report details how fracking wells can contaminate groundwater.
Source: GAO

Two new reports on fracking’s potential threat to American aquifers suggest that drinking-water contamination is significantly more likely than energy producers, and regulators, have been willing to acknowledge.

Neither has gained much attention in the national press — and none locally that I can detect.

A two-year audit by the Government Accountability Office, made public two weeks ago, concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing a poor job of protecting drinking-water supplies from the many fracking-related activities that fall outside the so-called “Halliburton loophole.”

Since 2006, most injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids done to directly produce oil and natural gas has been exempt from EPA oversight. But other phases of the fracking operations — injection of wastes or returned water for long-term storage — are supposed to be regulated by EPA or state agencies to which it delegates the responsibility.

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There are now some 172,000 such wells across the U.S., and though at least some of these are known to have contaminated drinking water sources, the GAO found that no long-term monitoring is being done, and short-term oversight is deficient in many respects as well.

The second report was delivered earlier this week to the national conference of the American Chemical Society by Stanford scientist Rob Jackson, of whom I have written before.

Fracking in aquifers

Drawing on research not yet published, Jackson and Stanford colleague Dominic DiGiulio — formerly employed by EPA to investigate fracking-related problems — told the chemists’ meeting in San Francisco that gas production often takes place at the same depth as drinking-water aquifers, despite industry assertions to the contrary.

They cannot point to instances where actual contamination has occurred, according to an account of their presentation by Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times, in part because EPA and state regulators haven’t really looked at groundwater impacts.

Perhaps the best coverage I found concerning the GAO report was at ProPublica, which has devoted steady emphasis to demonstrating patterns of weakness, laxity and simple neglect in U.S. fracking regulation. Placing the key findings of GAO’s two-year audit in context, ProPublica observed that

Concerns have mounted recently about potential water contamination from injections wells. California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review of more than 100 others, out of fears that fracking fluids and other toxic waste are reaching drinking water aquifers there. Earthquakes from Ohio to Oklahoma to Texas have also been blamed on injection wells governed by the EPA’s program.

The GAO’s findings echo those in a 2012 ProPublica investigation which found that the nation’s injection wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, likely leading to pollution of underground water supplies. ProPublica’s investigation found that the EPA did not know exactly how many wells existed in the United States or what volume of waste was being injected into them, and that it did not possess complete records required to be collected under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

From the report itself, mildly titled “DRINKING WATER: EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement”:

Every day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into underground formations to enhance oil and gas production or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources.

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These fluids consist largely of saltwater and may contain pollutants such as chlorides, hydrocarbons, and naturally occurring radioactive materials. Using injection wells that rely on gravity or pressure, the fluids are injected deep underground into porous rock formations, such as sandstone, that are typically below aquifers that can, or do, supply drinking water.

Because a significant percentage of the population gets its drinking water from underground aquifers, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.

Water monitoring is rare

GAO investigators examined monitoring of these so-called “class II wells” in eight states, six of which managed their own program (California, Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas) and two of which left the whole matter to EPA regional offices (Kentucky and Pennsylvania).

Although all eight require predrilling review of the plans for these wells, most states do not routinely monitor nearby groundwater resources as the well is being drilled or after it is sealed.

The report refers repeatedly to “a few” known instances of drinking water contamination, without specifics, but also notes that

However, unless it is part of an investigation of a citizen or other complaint, EPA and states generally do not directly monitor groundwater to detect contamination from injection wells as part of their class II programs.

When it first developed the UIC program and its regulations, EPA considered, but did not include, monitoring of groundwater for contamination as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of the program  and its safeguards.

Furthermore, the Safe Drinking Water Act does not specifically require groundwater quality monitoring for class II wells. Moreover, EPA guidance notes that, while evidence of the presence or absence of groundwater contamination is important, it cannot serve as the only measure of program effectiveness, and the absence of evidence of contamination does not necessarily prove that contamination has not occurred.

Rules date from 1980s

In a section devoted to emerging “new risks”— induced seismicity, or earthquakes, as well as overpressurization of wells and rising use of diesel fuels — the auditors note that GAO has not updated is regulations for class II wells since the 1980s, long before the fracking boom, and has no coherent plan for doing so now.

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Meanwhile, the inspection programs are hindered by inadequate staffing and funding (four of the eight states had fewer than 10 inspectors), as well as inadequate data collection on chemicals and methods being used at the wells.

Remember, now, these are the wells that EPA has the clear authority to monitor closely. Even less is known about exempt wells drilled to produce the gas and oil.

Those were the subject of the Jackson-DiGiulio presentation to the American Chemical Society. A few excerpts from the L.A. Times account:

DiGiulio and Jackson plotted the depths of fracked wells, as well as domestic drinking water wells in the Pavillion [Wyoming] area. They found that companies used acid stimulation and hydraulic fracturing at depths of the deepest water wells near the Pavillion gas field, at 700 to 750 feet.

“It’s true that fracking often occurs miles below the surface,” said Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford. “People don’t realize, though, that it’s sometimes happening less than a thousand feet underground in sources of drinking water.”

The EPA launched three investigations over the last six years into possible drinking water contamination by oil and gas activity in Dimock, Pa.; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyo. After initially finding evidence of contamination at the three sites, the EPA shelved the investigations amid allegations by environmentalists and local residents that the regulator succumbed to political pressure.

In June 2013, the EPA turned over the [Pavillion] study to Wyoming regulators, whose work is being funded by EnCana, the company accused of polluting the water in Pavillion.