Category Archives: drinking water

DESMOGBLOG: Science advisors tell EPA not to downplay fracking-related water contamination

Repost from DeSmogBlog

EPA’s Science Advisors Tell Agency Not to Downplay Fracking-Related Water Contamination

By Sharon Kelly, August 14, 2016 – 17:12

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific advisors finished their review of EPA‘s national study on fracking and sternly rebuked the EPA for claiming that its draft study had found no evidence of “widespread, systemic” impacts to drinking water.

The EPA had not provided the evidence to support that claim, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) peer review panel found. The phrase was widely quoted in the press, but appeared only in a press release and the Executive Summary of EPA‘s draft study of the impacts of fracking on drinking water.

Environmentalists challenged EPA‘s summary of the data, arguing that the agency’s conclusion wrongly ignored the thousands of spills, leaks, and other problems described in the body of the draft report.

The science advisory panel, in a letter signed by 26 of the 30 panelists, agreed. “The SAB is concerned that these major findings as presented within the Executive Summary are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft Assessment Report,” the SAB wrote.

The SAB finds that the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources,” the SAB wrote, “and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of ‘systemic’ and ‘widespread.’”

The SAB‘s 180-page letter makes clear that if the Obama administration claims that fracking has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” to water, it bears the burden of proving that their assessment is actually supported by evidence.

The SAB concludes that if the EPA retains this conclusion, the EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources,” the reviewers wrote.

Environmental advocates welcomed the science panel’s findings as vindication.

EPA didn’t provide/have a scientific basis for its controversial line, and today EPA SAB is calling them out for that,” Dr. Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher for Food and Water Watch, told DeSmog in an email.

The controversial language from EPA‘s 998-page draft fracking study‘s Executive Summary had said: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms [which included wastewater spills or treatment problems as well as underground water contamination] have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

The EPA was asked by Congress to investigate fracking’s impacts on drinking water back in 2009.

That “widespread, systemic” language matters beyond headlines. When state and federal regulators decide whether fracking requires regulation or restrictions like bans, it matters enormously whether the EPA says that problems with fracking are severe enough to require action.

“This, of course, goes to the very heart of the issue, because it’s one thing if, occasionally, there have been some unfortunate accidents — but another if there is something inherent to the entire process of unconventional gas development that harms drinking water,” the Washington Post explained in its coverage of the SAB‘s scathing letter.

The EPA‘s study had long been under fire for apparent coziness between researchers and the shale industry. Repeatedly, news outlets obtained drafts of the EPA‘s study plans that showed a powerful industry influence over the study and a steady narrowing of the study’s scope — which would mean that real-world problems would not make it into EPA‘s on-paper review of fracking’s potential hazards.

“'[Y]ou guys are part of the team here,’ one EPA representative wrote to Chesapeake Energy as they together edited study planning documents in October 2013, ‘please write things in as you see fit,’” DeSmog previously reported.

The SAB science advisory panel, which worked for over a year on reviewing EPA‘s draft study, included scientists from academia, government, and the industry. Four of the 30 advisors dissented, writing their own opinion. “While the report could have articulated the agency’s statistical assessment more clearly, there has not been any facts or evidence demonstrating a systemic or widespread impact to existing drinking water resources or other water resources,” the four dissenters wrote.

So what is in the body of EPA‘s study that was left out of its executive summary? DeSmog reviewed and found that the EPA described numerous problems, including the following:

Meanwhile, accidents keep on happening, both above-ground and under, by the hundreds or thousands. One in a dozen spills by drillers wasn’t contained before it hit drinking water sources – and the spills that hit water supplies tended to be much larger spills than those that didn’t (p. 38). Although gas wells are generally depicted as having numerous layers of concrete and steel casings to prevent the gas, wastewater and chemicals inside the well from interacting with the environment outside it, two thirds of wells had no cement along some portions of their bores (p. 275), an EPA review found. And conditions underground, which can leave wells under high pressure, high temperatures or in “corrosive environments” sometimes caused well casings to have “life expectancies” that run out in under a decade (p. 281) – but the oil and gas industry has told investors that shale wells are expected to keep pumping for 30 years or more.

In its letter yesterday, the SAB peer-review panel also took the EPA to task for neglecting some of the nation’s highest-profile cases of water contamination, like Pavillion, WY, Parker County, TX and Dimock, PA. People from those towns whose water was contaminated had testified before the SAB in November, questioning the panel about the EPA‘s apparent decision to ignore what had happened to their communities.

“I feel that the EPA abandoned me,” Steven Lipsky, of Parker County, Texas, who faces a defamation lawsuit from driller Range Resources after EPA dropped its investigation into the flammable water at his home, told the SAB in November.

In its peer review, the SAB called on EPA to include those three high-profile incidents and questioned the EPA‘s decision to zoom out the lens by focusing on “widespread” problems. ” These local-level potential impacts have the potential to be severe, and the final Assessment Report needs to better characterize and recognize the importance of local impacts, especially since locally important impacts are unlikely to be captured in a national -level summary of impacts,” the SABtold EPA.

On Thursday, oil and gas advocates sought to closely parse the SAB‘s language, suggesting that the EPA did not necessarily have to change its language. “The panel does not ask EPA to modify or eliminate its topline finding of ‘no widespread, systemic impacts’ to groundwater from fracking – it asks EPA to provide more details or a ‘quantitative analysis’ of how the agency came to that conclusion,” Energy in Depth wrote in a blog post on the study.

Dr. David Dzombak, a member of the SAB who helped prepare the SAB‘s opinion told reporters that the SAB was backing a call for the EPA to drop the “widespread, systemic” phrasing.

One option for the agency would be to drop that conclusion,” he told StateImpact. “The SAB is asking here for clarification of an ambiguous statement.”

In a statement, the EPA said it would take its peer-reviewer’s comments into consideration as it moved to finalize its study draft. “EPA will use the SAB’s final comments and suggestions, along with relevant literature published since the release of the draft assessment, and public comments received by the agency, to revise and finalize the assessment,” the EPA said.

Environmental groups called on the EPA to listen closely to the SAB‘s recommendations and to take action to address the problems that the EPA‘s draft study described.

“The science is in. EPA knows that fracking pollutes drinking water,” said Lauren Pagel, Policy Director for Earthworks. “Now is the time for us to move away from this dirty fossil fuel and replace it with clean energy that does not harm public health.”

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    NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO: Advocates Call On Feds To Ban Rail Transport Of Bakken Oil

    Repost from WAMC Northeast Public Radio
    [Editor:  Significant quote: “More than 80 environmental, business, recreational and other organizations along with former members of state agencies, current and former state legislators and both the Plattsburgh and Burlington City Councils have signed a letter to the Vermont and New York Congressional delegation calling for a ‘federal legislatively imposed ban on the transport of oil along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.'”  – RS]

    Advocates Call On Federal Officials To Ban Rail Transport Of Bakken Oil

    By Pat Bradley, Apr 14, 2016
    PAT BRADLEY/WAMC

    A coalition of environmental and municipal officials stood in a park overlooking the Saranac River and a rail trestle this morning. They announced a new effort to convince federal representatives from New York and Vermont to ban crude oil transport in order to protect Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

    The group met at MacDonough Park across from City Hall. The park is only a few hundred yards from a rail trestle that daily sees trains carrying crude oil cross over the Saranac River as it empties into Lake Champlain. The advocates say transporting Bakken oil by rail remains an unacceptable risk to Vermont and New York, and is especially hazardous to the sensitive ecosystems of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.

    More than 80 environmental, business, recreational and other organizations along with former members of state agencies, current and former state legislators and both the Plattsburgh and Burlington City Councils have signed a letter to the Vermont and New York Congressional delegation calling for a “federal legislatively imposed ban on the transport of oil along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.”

    National Wildlife Federation Senior Counsel Jim Murphy outlined a precipitous increase in rail accidents nationally over the past three years and says the oil trains that travel along Lake Champlain are too dangerous. “We have concluded that there is no safe way to transport this oil at this time. The trains that roll along this lake are sometimes twice the length of the train that destroyed Lac Megantic. The danger is just simply too high.”

    Plattsburgh Ward One City Councilor Rachelle Armstrong called the oil trains travelling through the city an ominous problem. “Our municipalities need to stand up and become the advocates in a bold and aggressive way so that we bring the attention to bear on this issue that our leaders at the federal level need to recognize.”

    The rail corridor along Lake Champlain also passes through the Adirondack Park. Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan says the trains pose a significant risk to the largest park in the contiguous United States. “This is also considered to be a biosphere reserve by the United Nations. The danger here is also to a drinking water supply for one hundred eighty thousand people. Lake Champlain serves as water for people from Vermont, New York and Quebec. So we have grave concerns about the environment, about communities and about wild lands here and we’re hoping that the federal government takes them seriously.”

    The trains carrying Bakken crude travel 100 miles along Lake Champlain and through the Adirondacks to the Port of Albany. Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori Fisher believes a catastrophic accident is not a matter of if, but when. “In the past we have pushed for a ban on the DOT-111’s. That hasn’t happened. There’s been some movement to upgrade trains to the twelve thirty two’s. They don’t represent a greater safety for our communities. That’s why we see the need to push for a ban on oil transport until it can be safe. We know it’s not safe now and it’s a ticking time bomb and we need to act now.”

    The advocates noted that the evacuation zone from an oil train derailment in Plattsburgh includes City Hall, the downtown business area, the Country Government Center and numerous schools.

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      California shuts dozens of oil wells to stop wastewater injection

      Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

      State shuts 33 wells injecting oil wastewater into aquifers

      By David R. Baker, October 16, 2015
      A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
      A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

      California regulators on Thursday closed 33 oil company wells that had injected wastewater into potentially drinkable aquifers protected by federal law.

      The new closures bring to 56 the number of oil-field wastewater injection wells shut down by the state after officials realized they were pumping oil-tainted water into aquifers that potentially could be used for drinking or irrigation.

      All but two of the latest closures are in Kern County, in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. One lies in Ventura County, another in northern Los Angeles County. Officials with California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources spent Friday verifying that they had, in fact, closed. Of the 33, only 21 had been actively injecting wastewater before Thursday.

      “This is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that California’s groundwater resources are protected as oil and gas production take place,” said Steven Bohlen, the division’s supervisor.

      California’s oil fields contain large amounts of salty water that comes to the surface mixed with the oil. It must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, often by injecting it back underground. Much of the water is pumped back into the same geologic formation it came from. But enough left-over water remains that companies must find other places to put it.

      Fears of contamination

      The division, part of California’s Department of Conservation, for years issued oil companies permits to inject their left-over water into aquifers that were supposed to be off-limits, protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

      The problem, detailed in a Chronicle investigation earlier this year, raised fears of water contamination in a state struggling through a historic, four-year drought.

      So far, however, no drinking water supplies have been found to be tainted by the injections.

      Still, some environmentalists expressed outrage that so few wells had been closed.

      The division has identified 178 wells that were injecting into legally protected aquifers with relatively high water quality, defined as those with a maximum of 3,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids. More than 2,000 other wells inject into aquifers that would be harder to use for drinking water, either because they are too salty or because they also contain oil.

      “This is too little, too late to protect our water,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With each passing day the oil industry is polluting more and more of our precious water.”

      The division reported Friday, however, that not all 178 wells required closure. Some had already been shut down by their operators, while others had been converted into wells for extracting oil — not dumping wastewater.

      An oil industry trade group noted that all of the wells closed Thursday had received state permits, even if the state now acknowledges that those permits should never have been issued.

      “Both regulators and producers are committed to protecting underground water supplies, and today’s announcement reinforces the seriousness of that commitment,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.

      Safeguarding water supplies

      “California’s oil and natural gas producers are committed to operating their wells in a manner that continues to safeguard public water supplies,” she said.

      Revelations that the division allowed injections into relatively fresh groundwater supplies touched off a political firestorm, triggered lawsuits, and led Bohlen to launch a reorganization of his staff.

      More well closures will likely follow. Under regulations adopted this year, wells injecting into aquifers with water quality between 3,000 and 10,000 total dissolved solids must cease injections by Feb. 15, 2017, unless granted an exemption from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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        NY Times: Study Shows Fracking Chemicals in Pennsylvania Drinking Water

        Repost from the New York Times
        [Editor:  The reporter admirably gives industry spokespersons plenty of space to refute the claims of this study.  But don’t quit reading there.  Farther down in the article is scientific rebuttal and further explanation: “Dr. Brantley described the geology in northern Pennsylvania as being similar to a layer cake with numerous layers that extend down thousands of feet to the Marcellus Shale. The vertical fractures are like knife cuts through the layers. They can extend deep underground, and can act like superhighways for escaped gas and liquids from drill wells to travel along, for distances greater than a mile away, she said.”  – RS]

        Fracking Chemicals Detected in Pennsylvania Drinking Water

        By Nicholas St. Fleur, May 4, 2015
        A natural gas well in Bradford County, Pa., where a study found that three households had traces of 2-Butoxyethanol or 2BE, a compound found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids. Credit Reuters

        An analysis of drinking water sampled from three homes in Bradford County, Pa., revealed traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids, according to a study published on Monday.

        The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, addresses a longstanding question about potential risks to underground drinking water from the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The authors suggested a chain of events by which the drilling chemical ended up in a homeowner’s water supply.

        “This is the first case published with a complete story showing organic compounds attributed to shale gas development found in a homeowner’s well,” said Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors and a geoscientist from Pennsylvania State University.

        The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk. In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below. The industry criticized the new study, saying that it provided no proof that the chemical came from a nearby well.

        In 2012, a team of environmental scientists collected drinking water samples from the households’ outdoor spigots. An analysis showed that the water in one household contained 2-Butoxyethanol or 2BE, a common drilling chemical. The chemical, which is also commonly used in paint and cosmetics, is known to have caused tumors in rodents, though scientists have not determined if those carcinogenic properties translate to humans. The authors said the amount found, which was measured in parts per trillion, was within safety regulations and did not pose a health risk.

        Dr. Brantley said her team believed that the well contaminants came from either a documented surface tank leak in 2009 or, more likely, as a result of poor drilling well integrity.

        The nearby gas wells, which were established in 2009, were constructed with a protective intermediate casing of steel and cement from the surface down to almost 1,000 feet. But the wells below that depth lacked the protective casing, and were potentially at greater risk of leaking their contents into the surrounding rock layers, according to Dr. Brantley.

        In April 2011 the three homeowners in Bradford County sued the drilling company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, over reports of finding natural gas and sediment in their drinking well water. In May of that year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited the oil and gas company for violating the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act and Clean Streams Law by letting natural gas enter the drinking wells, though the company admitted no fault. In 2012, the homeowners settled the lawsuit and the company bought the three households.

        As a result of that suit, the state environmental protection agency recommended that the drilling company require that their wells extend what are known as intermediate casings beyond 1,000 feet.

        Dr. Brantley described the geology in northern Pennsylvania as being similar to a layer cake with numerous layers that extend down thousands of feet to the Marcellus Shale. The vertical fractures are like knife cuts through the layers. They can extend deep underground, and can act like superhighways for escaped gas and liquids from drill wells to travel along, for distances greater than a mile away, she said.

        Katie Brown, an energy consultant with Energy in Depth, an advocacy group for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the authors had no evidence that the small traces they found of 2BE, which is also used in many household items, came from a drilling site.

        “The entire case is based around the detection of an exceedingly small amount of a compound that’s commonly used in hundreds of household products,” Ms. Brown wrote in an email. “The researchers suggest the compound is also found in a specific drilling fluid, but then tell us they have no evidence that this fluid was used at the well site.”

        Garth T. Llewellyn, a hydrogeologist with Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting and the lead author of the report, said that when his team sampled water wells that were farther away from the drilling sites, they did not find any of the compounds found in the three households. “When you include all of the lines of evidence, it concludes that that’s the most probable source,” he said.

        Victor Heilweil, a hydrogeologist from the University of Utah who was not involved with the study but reviewed its details, said it was noteworthy for showing “the detailed geologic fabric explaining how these contaminants can move relatively long distances from the depth to the drinking well.”

        An environmental scientist from Stanford University, Rob Jackson, who also reviewed the paper, said it “clearly shows an impact of oil and gas drilling on water quality.” But he emphasized that this instance was an exception.

        The dates of the incident were not surprising to Scott Anderson, a senior policy analyst with the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, who said that well integrity was generally poor around 2008 and 2009. He said that using casings of steel and cement at depths below 1,000 feet was a good idea in this region. But he also noted that the industry has strengthened its practices since then, including increased use of intermediate casings.

        “Industry knows how to construct wells properly, but the fact is that they don’t always do so,” Mr. Anderson said. “My hope would be that papers like this will encourage industry and its regulators to do a better job of doing what they already know they are supposed to do.”

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