Category Archives: Water contamination

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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    NPR: In The Pacific Northwest, Oil Train Derailment Highlights Potential Dangers

    Heard on All Things Considered
    By Conrad Wilson, August 12, 2016 4:31 PM ET

    The number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington could dramatically increase.

    There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota to a proposed oil terminal in southwest Washington state.

    An oil train derailment earlier this year has shown the potential danger faced by the region.

    TRANSCRIPT________________________________________________

    AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

    In the Northwest, the number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River could dramatically increase, and that’s sharpened a debate over oil train safety in Washington state and Oregon. There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region to a proposed oil terminal in Washington. As Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, a recent derailment has shown the potential danger the area faces.

    CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a Friday in early June, more than 40,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled in a fiery oil train derailment that burned for 14 hours.

    EMILY REED: It is an incredibly scary thing to have something like this happen so – and within our city limits, so close to our school.

    WILSON: Emily Reed is the city council president in Mosier, Ore., the town where the derailment took place. About 500 people live in Mosier, and 100 of them were forced to evacuate when the oil train derailed. Reed points out the town’s deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a canyon with steep cliffs, where winds can reach 40 miles per hour during the summer.

    REED: If the wind had been as it is today or more, we would have had a fire going up more than four of those cars, all the way through town and wiping out our town.

    WILSON: Union Pacific was to blame for the derailment that caused the oil spill, according to a preliminary report by the Federal Railroad Administration. It says Union Pacific didn’t maintain its tracks properly. However, an inspector certified by that same federal agency checked the tracks and gave them the OK a little more than a month before the derailment.

    JERRY OLIVER: It was unfortunate for the community.

    WILSON: Jerry Oliver is a port commissioner in Vancouver, Wash., and a vocal supporter of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, known as the Vancouver Energy Project.

    OLIVER: It’s also unfortunate because it gives a tremendous black eye to anything related to fossil fuels.

    WILSON: If built, the terminal would more than double the number of mile-long oil trains traveling along the Columbia River, to about 46 trains per week. Serena Larkin is with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes the oil terminal. She says until Mosier, oil train derailments were the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.

    SERENA LARKIN: Mosier proved that we’re not any different. We are just as vulnerable. We are facing the exact same risks from oil trains that everyone else in North America is facing right now.

    WILSON: Despite low oil prices, proponents of the project say the terminal is needed to reduce foreign imports and move domestic oil. For now, it’s relying on oil trains because there aren’t enough pipelines to move oil from North Dakota to the West Coast. Larkin says Mosier’s a turning point in the debate surrounding the Vancouver oil terminal and one that will weigh heavily on whether the project gets permitted.

    LARKIN: It showed what the Vancouver oil terminal is really asking Northwest communities to shoulder in risk.

    DAN RILEY: I strongly believe that all accidents are preventable.

    WILSON: Dan Riley is vice president of government affairs for Tesoro, an oil company behind the project. Since the derailment in Mosier, he says there has been more scrutiny.

    RILEY: I think that the criticism is not of the project, but of the rail system.

    WILSON: Reilly says Tesoro has also pledged to only allow tank cars with thicker shells and other safety features designed to withstand a derailment into the Vancouver facility. But that’s done little to ease the safety concerns of firefighters and environmental groups. Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say on whether the project gets approved. That decision could come later this year. Inslee’s acknowledged the risk oil trains pose. He says the Mosier derailment is among the things he’ll consider when determining whether or not he’ll permit the oil terminal. For NPR News, I’m Conrad Wilson in Vancouver, Wash.

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      PUBLIC RADIO: The Best Of A Worst Case Scenario: How Bad Could The Mosier Oil Train Spill Have Been?

      Repost from Jefferson Public Radio, Southern Oregon University

      The Best Of A Worst Case Scenario: How Bad Could The Mosier Oil Train Spill Have Been?

      By EMILY SCHWING • AUG 10, 2016
      In the wake of June's train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington's Department of Ecology placed an oil containment boom in Rock Creek 'just in case.'
      In the wake of June’s train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington’s Department of Ecology placed an oil containment boom in Rock Creek ‘just in case.’ WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF ECOLOGY

      JPR Listen

      If it had to happen, the worst case scenario couldn’t have played out more smoothly. That’s the sentiment in Mosier, Oregon, where a train loaded with highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed two months ago.

      On the day of the accident, 14 cars bent and folded like an accordion across the tracks. Four of them caught fire, but the wind was oddly quiet, so a subsequent fire didn’t spread like it could have. And as they careened off the track, oil cars narrowly missed the trestle of an overpass that serves as one of only two routes into town.

      “Living here in Mosier, it was the best of a worst case scenario,” local Walter Menge said. “I mean it could have been so much worse.”

      Bob Schwarz is a project manager with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. Lately, he’s been giving a lot of media tours of the accident site.

      “We’re standing near a manhole where the lid was sheared off by one of the cars and it caused a lot of the oil to flow into the manhole to the wastewater treatment plant which is about 200 feet from us right now,” Schwarz said. “And that captured quite a bit of the oil fortunately, which kept it from getting into the Columbia River.”

      Schwarz said some of that oil did seep into the groundwater, although it’s not clear how much.

      “We’re measuring it in hundreds of parts per billion with a ‘b,’ so it’s a very small mass,” Schwarz said. “But the levels are still high enough for us to have to clean it up.”

      Despite all the luck, there are still a few unknowns, like where all that spilled oil might go.

      “I’m concerned about all the animals in the wetlands,” Schwarz said.

      Schwarz wouldn’t say whether the cleanup effort is moving fast or slow. He did say DEQ is ‘pleased with how things are progressing’ and said Union Pacific Railroad, the company that was transporting the oil, has been ‘extremely cooperative.’

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        Nearly a year and a half later: Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

        Repost from CBC News

        Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

        Small town pushing Ministry of the Environment to require CN to continue clean-up
        By CBC News, Aug 10, 2016 7:33 AM ET
        Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015.
        Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015. (Erik White/CBC )

        The fencing around the site of the Gogama train derailment is coming down today, as the clean-up from the oil spill has been declared complete. But residents say their local waters are still contaminated with oil.

        Sheens of oil are commonly seen on the Makami River, over which the oil train derailed in March 2015, as well as lake Minisinakwa, on which the town is built.

        People have also found several dead fish in recent weeks and wondered if it’s connected to the spill.

        “I understand it’s never going to be pristine again,” says Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson. “There was no sheen, there was no dead fish, there was no oil spill on Mar. 6, 2015.”

        “So, we got to try to get it closer than that. Let’s get it to the point that there’s no fish dying. And I’m not going to die of throat cancer in five years because I’ve been eating the fish out of this lake.”

        Benson said CN rail is willing to continue the clean-up, but has been told by the Ministry of Environment that the work is satisfactory.

        CN has agreed to let more soil samples be taken from the site and be sent away for independent testing, along with some of the dead fish, at the company’s expense.

        In a statement the railroad said that “CN recognizes that local citizens have identified areas of concern, where they believe further clean up should be done in order to protect human and fish populations. CN is today on the ground in Gogama, working with local residents to identify specific areas.”

        Gogama derailment site
        After a year and a half, the fencing around the site of the train derailment and oil spill near Gogama will come down and it will once again be open to the public. (Erik White/CBC )

        Benson said he was surprised to find out over the last year and a half that the railroad was responsible for the environment testing, not the Ministry of the Environment.

        “I can’t believe our government tells the fox to test the chickens,” Benson told a public meeting of over 100 people at the Gogama Community Centre, which ministry officials were invited to attend.

        “Because that’s basically what they were doing. They were saying ‘OK, you got a mess. Tell us when it’s clean.'”​

        Benson said Ministry of Environment officials are aware of the oil slicks in the water, but don’t seem concerned.

        “We were going down the lake and we saw oil and he said ‘Well, just because there’s oil doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dangerous,” he said.

        Ministry officials may not have been at the meeting on Tuesday night, but they were in Gogama the following day to take water samples on Lake Minisinakwa.

        In a statement, the ministry said it “takes the concerns expressed by the citizens of Gogama and Mattagami First Nation very seriously and greatly appreciates direct reports from the citizens of their observations.  These reports enable our staff to respond in a timely manner to collect further information that can be used in guiding further action as appropriate.”

        The ministry statement also said that further fish testing in the Gogama area is planned for the fall, but reiterated that the fish tested last fall showed no signs of contamination.

        oil sheen in Makami River
        Gogama residents regularly see oil floating in the Makami River and other waters downstream from the oil spill. (Erik White/CBC )

        Band councillor suggests a protest to shut down the railroad

        CN officials had planned to attend the meeting, but were called away at the last minute.

        After expressing their frustrations for over an hour, the crowd erupted in applause, when Chad Boissoneau suggested that one way to get attention would be to “shut down” the railroad with a protest.

        He is a band councillor in the nearby Mattagami First Nation and has headed up efforts to keep up in the pickerel population in area lakes.

        “The clean-up shouldn’t be determined by what MOE feels is satisfactory, the clean-up should be determined by the community members and what’s satisfactory to them. Because we’re the ones that have to live here,” says Boissoneau, adding that oil has yet to be sighted in the waters by the first nation, which is downstream from the spill.

        Several people from Timmins, which draws its drinking water from the Mattagami River downstream from the spill, also attended the meeting and there was mention of how these waters run all the way to the James Bay Coast.

        public meeting
        Over 100 people attended a public meeting at the Gogama Community Centre on Aug. 9 to express their frustrations with the oil clean-up. (Erik White/CBC )

        Towards the end of the meeting there was talk of circulating a petition that Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas could table at Queen’s Park and including these downstream communities.

        Gelinas said until now people in Gogama were always hesitant to draw too much attention to the oil spill, fearing it would hurt the local tourism industry. But many lodges are reporting a drop in business anyway.

        “There was always this reluctance to talk about it too much outside of Gogama,” she says.

        It’s hard to get Toronto politicians to care about a little town called Gogama

        “If you’re ready to sound the alarm bells, I have no doubt that the people from Sudbury will support you, the people from Timmins will support you and the people from everywhere in Ontario will support you if you’re ready to reach out and speak loud.”

        Gelinas said she too has had trouble getting government officials to give time to the concerns of a small town called Gogama.

        “If this environmental disaster had happened closer to Toronto, things would have been handled very differently,” she said at the meeting.

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