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Fracking Unfocus: How the EPA’s Long-Awaited Hydraulic Fracturing Study Could Miss the Mark

The EPA study probing the fracking industry’s threats to drinking water is delayed at least two years and may not address issues related to water and air contamination.

The fracking rush will boom for at least two more years before a long-awaited EPA study probing the industry’s dangers posed to drinking water will be completed.

That’s too long for states like Pennsylvania to wait, says Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus Shale coordinator with Clean Water Action Pennsylvania and one of a growing group of environmental advocates and chemical scientists who now worry the study will fall short on several fronts.

“We have to wait two years for the study to come out, and another year for a review,” Hvozdovich said. “Three years is a long time for states like Pennsylvania, who are dealing with the impacts of gas drilling every day, to get some help from the federal government.”

The study will examine the impact of chemicals injected deep into the Earth during the full water cycle in hydraulic fracturing – an industry that is largely exempt from federal regulation.

Yet Hvozdovich is concerned the study relies too much on data provided by oil and gas companies, that it ignores possible air pollution and that it will not include specific recommendations aimed at preventing water contamination. The biggest concern, however, is that the study’s conclusions will be too little, too late after a two-year delay, announced by an EPA official in June 2013.

The EPA’s delay in the national study – combined with the agency’s recent decision to abandon an investigation that linked fracking chemicals with groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyo. – raises the question “of whether there is a serious commitment to doing something about water contamination issues having to do with natural-gas fracking,” Hvozdovich said.

In 2010, Congress ordered the EPA to look into the dangers posed to drinking water sources by hydraulic fracturing. It was viewed as an ambitious study, designed to inform policymakers and bring legislative changes.

The research was expected to be completed in 2014. Then in 2013, in an announcement that was overlooked by most media outlets, EPA officials delayedthe study until 2016.

“If there are problems, one would want to know sooner than later,” said professor Joseph Ryan of the University of Colorado’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “If the study is delayed, it becomes less useful.”

Meanwhile, across the country, the fracking industry continues to spread, with fracking in more than 30 states and states such as New York and Maryland reviewing the possibility of allowing it. Just this summer, Illinois enacted a new law welcoming fracking into the southern portion of the state.

“This whole thing (of fracking) is coming in like a freight train, and there ought to be studies to figure out what is happening,” said John Angus, a chemical engineering professor at Case School of Engineering. “That is a no-brainer.”

Angus is also worried about the bigger-picture question that no politicians are addressing.

“There should be some thoughtful national policies that get us transferred to a future of renewable energy,” Angus said. “If we don’t do that, as one speaker at a recent conference said, (fracking) will be a bridge to nowhere – not a bridge to renewable energy.”

Problematic Process

The EPA has not publically stated the reasons for the two-year delay in its study looking into the possible impacts of fracking on the water supply.

“The agency estimated the report would likely be finalized in 2016,” an EPA media representative wrote to Truthout.

But according to sources outside the agency interviewed by Truthout who are following the EPA’s process for the study, there could be two separate issues – one logistical and one political.

Part of the EPA’s goal is to identify the possible chemicals that are injected into fracking wells or found in fracking wastewater. The agency already has identified more than 1,000 chemicals.

To identify the remaining unknown chemicals or the quantity of the chemicals used, the EPA is relying on nine companies – including oil and gas operators and fracking service companies – to identify chemicals, a process that already has proven problematic and may have contributed to the two-year delay.

According to an anonymous source who spoke with Truthout and who has seen progress reports, part of the reason for the delay has been several companies that promised to participate and are not fully cooperating with the study.

In January, 2013, The Associated Press reported on one such company, Range Resources, which, in reaction to another EPA study in Texas, threatened to no longer allow government scientists onto its drilling sites.

Environmentalists believe the EPA should have tailored its study around scientific testing, as opposed to gathering data from the industry.

The other possible reason for the delay, according to Hvozdovich, is a growing lack of political will to get it done.

“I think there is a concern from some of the folks in environmental groups in states with a fracking presence that this study is delayed because the administration is trying to promote natural gas as an energy supply,” Hvozdovich said.

Hvozdovich said President Obama’s public support of natural gas and the EPA’s unwillingness to follow through on water contamination investigations it started, as occurred in Pavilion, Wyo., and a similar halted investigation in Texas, is evidence that there is no rush to conduct a national study that may bring about possible regulation of a lawless industry.

Unknown Chemicals

A progress report released in December 2012 includes a list of more than 1,000 chemicals reported to have been used in hydraulic fracturing fluids or detected in fracking wastewater.

The EPA relied on the nine fracking companies and, a national database, to compile the list.

“One of the concerns that lingers is that some of those chemicals are (still) unknown or the quantities are unknown,” said Ryan, who also serves on the scientific committee charged with peer reviewing the EPA study’s results. As part of unrelated research for the National Science Foundation, Ryan is studying how to limit the natural gas industry’s impact on the environment and communities.

While the industry has disclosed some of the chemicals to the EPA, companies are protected by a loophole: The contents of the fracking fluid is disclosed through FracFocus, which doesn’t require companies to reveal chemicals that are considered “trade secrets.”

“Some chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids are considered confidential business information and are not identified in the report,” the EPA media representative wrote.

“There is very much a reliance – to a fault – on the industry to help provide the EPA with info they need to complete their study,” Hvozdovich said.

In some cases, the gas companies themselves use a third-party company to provide a concoction of chemicals – often without finding out exactly what is used in the concoction. “The industry itself is willing to use a chemical mixture without bothering to ask what is in that chemical mixture,” Hvozdovich said.

Too Little, Too Late?

The country will be on the verge of a new administration when the EPA’s study is finally completed. “It might be totally disregarded should we get someone in the new administration who is unfavorable to addressing the issue or someone who happens to have ties to oil and gas,” Hvozdovich said.

The study potentially could be delayed again as a result of the recent government shutdown. “We are now evaluating impacts of the government shutdown,” the EPA’s media representative told Truthout one week after the reopening of the federal government.

In the meantime, the delay to 2016 is pushing the responsibility for studying the possible harmful impacts of fracking to state environmental agencies and grass-roots environmental groups such as, a nonprofit that collects, shares and visualizes data related to the oil and gas industry.

Hvozdovich said the delay, along with the EPA’s recent decision to abandon the investigation that linked fracking chemicals with groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyo., allows the oil and gas industry to continue to send its own message to the country: that its operations don’t impact water quality or drinkability in any way.

Meanwhile, research in Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states contradicts the industry’s message. For instance, in July, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, at the urging of environmental groups, confirmed that oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses between 2008 and fall 2012. (Also, here is a map of municipalities with contaminated water supplies.)

“If we have a federal study and get federal action, there will be a blanket that covers all 50 states,” Hvozdovich said. “We won’t have to worry about having a patchwork system and whether the states can step up to this issue.”

No Plan of Action

Hvozdovich said he hopes the EPA study would go beyond simply documenting previous cases of water contamination.

According to the EPA, however, its study will not include proposed benchmarks for ways to prevent water contamination.

When asked if the study would include a plan of action or suggestions for keeping water clean, the EPA official replied: “Results of the study are intended to inform the public and provide policymakers at all levels with high-quality scientific knowledge that can be used in decision-making.”

Ryan said the EPA has some big challenges ahead with its in-depth study that is probing a complicated and controversial industry.

The professor did note that the agency as both research body and regulator was best positioned to include recommendations. “They have the power to do that,” Ryan said.

Hazardous Compounds

Advances in hydraulic fracturing technology have made deeply buried natural gas deposits in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and elsewhere accessible for the first time.

But there is little research showing where chemicals, combined with silica sand and water, wind up after they are injected deep into the Earth to break up formations where oil and gas are locked.

The concern is that, once injected, those chemicals will seep into the groundwater supply. The EPA’s national study will examine the role of chemicals during the full cycle water in hydraulic fracturing – “from acquiring water needed to make up hydraulic fracturing fluids, through the mixing of chemicals with that water and the injection of the resulting fluid into the well, to the management, treatment and disposal of wastewater that returns to the surface after hydraulic fracturing,” according to the EPA’s Office of Media Relations.

“There are definitely compounds being used in hydraulic fracturing and coming out of the well that are hazardous,” Ryan said. “Plenty of people have pointed that out.”

For Ryan, the recent events in Pavilion, Wyo., are an example of how the country’s legal and regulatory system makes it difficult to pinpoint that a company’s drilling activity directly caused exposure to hazardous chemicals.

In May, the EPA dropped its investigation in Pavilion – even though the agency previously stated its review would link water contamination to fracking there. The area first was drilled in 1960 and had been the site of extensive natural gas development since the 1990s. Starting about the same time, residents had complained of physical ailments and said their drinking water was black and tasted of chemicals.

The EPA’s deep water well tests showed benzene at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols – another dangerous human carcinogen – acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel, which seemed to show that man-made pollutants had found their way deep into the cracks of the Earth. In all, the EPA detected 13 compounds in the deep aquifer that it said were used often with the hydraulic fracturing processes, including 2-Butoxyethanol, a close relation to the 2-BEp found near the surface.

The agency’s sudden withdrawal from Pavilion came amid a backlash from the gas industry and state oil and gas regulators, who challenged the EPA’s interpretation of its data.

“There is a high probability that what was showing up in the water wells was due to poorly constructed oil and gas wells,” Ryan said. “But they are unable to prove it. You can always say it came from another source.”

Like a Freight Train

Ryan said several compounds used in fracking have been shown to harm residents who come in close contact. The most hazardous compounds belong to the group called BTEX, an acronym that stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

Toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes have harmful effects on the central nervous system. Research has shown that the most likely route of exposure to BTEX compounds is through the air, not the water supply.

“The likely route of exposure, if one were hypothesizing the source of exposure, would be through the air,” Ryan told Truthout.

Because the EPA’s national study will be looking at the possible link between fracking and water contamination only, the review leaves out a large unknown when it comes to the impact of these hazardous compounds. “That is a shortcoming that a lot of people have pointed out,” Ryan said.

Angus would like to see politicians grapple with longer-term solution of renewable energy.

Whether achieved through a carbon tax or other benchmarks, Angus said he doesn’t know the solution.

“This would require a national conversation, so to speak,” Angus said, “and good luck on getting that going.”

Angus also said the fracking boom under way inevitably is going to spread. “The whole key is to do it right,” Angus said. “And that covers the water.”

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