EPA: Impact of fracking on drinking water resources relatively low

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released yesterday what it called “the most comprehensive” look at the impacts of fracking on drinking water. Speaking on a conference call with reporters, the EPA’s science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of the office of research and development Thomas A. Burke said the study – which was ordered by Congress in 2010 – “greatly advances our scientific understanding of fracking’s potential impacts.”

“Based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources,” said Burke. “In fact the number of documented impacts on drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to number of fractured wells.”

The EPA’s report, which looked at the hydrologic cycle of water related to the entire unconventional gas drilling process, including water withdrawals, well completion, and waste water treatment, recycling, and disposal – according to Thomas A. Burke – was never meant as a “health risk assessment.” Neither is it meant to affect policy – Burke said.

The study identified a number of potential risks to the environment that frackning can cause but stressed that given how widespread the process is, the actual environmental impact has not been high.

Among the risks to water associated with fracking, the EPA listed:

  1. Risks during water acquisition:
    • Change in the quantity of water available for drinking
    • Change in drinking water quality
  2. Risks during chemical mixing:
    • Release to surface and ground water through on-site spills and/or leaks
  3. Risks during well injection (fracking):
    • Release of hydraulic fracturing fluids to ground water due to inadequate well construction or operation
    • Movement of hydraulic fracturing fluids from the target formation to drinking water aquifers through local man-made or natural features (e.g., abandoned wells and existing faults)
    • Movement into drinking water aquifers of natural substances found underground, such as metals or radioactive materials, which are mobilized during hydraulic fracturing activities
  4. Risks during production:
    • Release to surface or ground water through spills or leakage from on-site storage
  5. Risks during wastewater treatment and waste disposal:
    • Contaminants reaching drinking water due to surface water discharge and inadequate treatment of wastewater
    • Byproducts formed at drinking water treatment facilities by reaction of hydraulic fracturing contaminants with disinfectants.

While the report does acknowledge, unlike an earlier EPA study from 2004, that the fracking process has contaminated water supplies, Burke made clear that the report – which took into account more than 950 published papers, numerous technical reports and information from industry and environmental stakeholders – gave neither a thumbs up nor thumbs down to the safety of fracking.

“This is a study of how we can best protect our water resources. It’s not a question of safe or unsafe, it’s a question of understanding vulnerabilities, so that we can address those vulnerabilities, practice hydraulic fracturing in the safest possible way to reduce those risks and protect those resources,” Mr Burke said.

“Once final, EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industries around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” he added.

Rather surprisingly, the report was favourably received by both pro- and anti-fracking groups.

An American environmental organisation The Sierra Club said the study confirmed that fracking pollutes water:

“The EPA’s water quality study confirms what millions of Americans already know – that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, drew completely different conclusions:

“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known,”API Upstream Group Director Erik Milito. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”

Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said in a written release: “We are very pleased with EPA’s findings, which not only reflect the strong, rigorous and modernized regulations in place that ensure environmental protection but also the industry’s focus and commitment to continuous operational improvements, especially related to groundwater protection and effective water management best practices.”

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