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Despite Industry Spin, EPA Report Finds Extensive Threats to Water Posed by Fracking

By Katie Huffling

Late last week, the EPA released it's highly anticipated draft assessment of how hydraulic fracturing impacts drinking water, and industry spokespeople immediately grabbed on to this quote: “hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water supplies”. While oil and gas companies were quick to trumpet their favorite part of the headline, it seems they quickly overlooked the important 'buts' that went with the statement.

EPA stated that they didn't find 'widespread systemic impacts', but...

But they did find over 450 spills of chemicals and contaminated wastewater which directly polluted water supplies. In fact, over 2/3 of these 450 spills impacted the environment, and possibly our health, by reaching “environmental receptors” such as surface or groundwater.

But EPA was hamstrung by the design of the study itself.  In conducting this study, EPA was forced to work with limited data and EPA scientists were not allowed to directly monitor fracking sites. The report states, “In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty.”

But EPA did not include injection wells in their analysis, where millions of gallons of fracking wastewater is disposed. EPA was given a constrained scope of work by Congress when they mandated this assessment, and fracking wastewater injection wells are another huge potential source of pollution that was completely ignored in the study.

And—EPA identified numerous ways in which our drinking water may be vulnerable due to fracking. Without immediate actions like adequate monitoring and enforcement they could have catastrophic effects on drinking water. These vulnerabilities include:

  • Contributing to poor water quality, especially where communities suffer from drought. Water withdrawals in areas with fewer water resources negatively impacts local water quality. Fracking uses vast amounts of water, and is being conducted in many areas of the country which are currently experiencing severe drought. Water resources in places like California are scarce and easily threatened, and fracking is making the situation worse.
  • Toxic chemical spills. There are many points along the fracking process where spills or contamination has occurred, including movement of fluids, flowback (water used in the fracking process that is returned to the surface contaminated with chemicals), and surface and groundwater spills. Fracking may also occur directly in aquifers directly injecting chemicals into this precious water resource.
  • Technical failures leading to accidents. Well integrity failures can contaminate local water supplies. In a recent study of Pennsylvania wells, fracked wells were 6 times more likely to have well casing failures than conventionally drilled wells.

Stay tuned! As our broad network of health and community advocates work to review this 500+ page assessment we're sure there will be more to share.  EPA will also be hosting a series of public hearings to allow impacted residents, advocates, and scientists an opportunity to comment on the assessment. We hope you'll join us and help make sure EPA puts protecting public health and our drinking water first.

Katie Huffling, RN, CNM is the co-coordinator of Coming Clean's Workgroup for Public Policy Reform, a Certified Nurse-Midwife and the director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

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