Bush Administration official now says that 2004 EPA hydraulic fracturing study did not intend to give fracturing a "clean bill of health"

Press coverage of the serious harms of oil and gas development is being produced faster than I can write about it. In another important and comprehensive story, ProPublica published an article last week that tells the story of drinking water contamination, and what individual citizens have to go through to try to prove their water was poisoned when regulators don't do their jobs.

ProPublica tells the story of Louis Meeks, a Wyoming Vietnam War veteran whose water was pure for 35 years, and then began to smell like gasoline. Natural gas wells are located close to his home. He hired someone to drill a new water well, but the driller could not find any clean water as he drilled deeper and deeper. And then, the hole he was drilling exploded with natural gas that had somehow found its way into the aquifer below Louis Meeks's home. Mr. Meeks was forced to hire his own engineers and lawyers to find out what happened to his water, spending almost his entire life savings in the effort. Even if he wanted to move, he was told by a realtor that no one would buy his home.

ProPublica also details groundwater contamination in Pinedale, Wyoming, where "frighteningly high levels" of benzene--a known carcinogen--has been found in 88 separate samples stretching across 28 miles. Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to investigate some of these cases.

Industry's line is that hydraulic fracturing is safe and has never caused water contamination. Industry spokespeople point to a 2004 study issued by the EPA, which concluded that hydraulic fracturing “poses little or no threat” and “does not justify additional study.” Industry has pretty much hung its hat on that study, but the study has been roundly criticized as politically influenced and scrubbed to remove damning information.

And in a stunning admission, Benjamin Grumbles, the Bush Administration appointee in charge of EPA's drinking water program at the time the report was issued, told ProPublica: "We never construed it as a clean bill of health.” In 2007 testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Mr. Grumbles reiterated the spin of the report that: "except in the cases where diesel fuel was used as an injection fluid, hydraulic fracturing posed little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water." Ironically, although under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA should have been regulating the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing, the agency never did so during the Bush Administration.

ProPublica provides details on Louis Meeks's neighbors who also have contaminated water, including some who have suffered serious illness, and groundwater contamination in other states around the country. ProPublica also interviewed top experts in the oil and gas industry who go on the record to discuss corners that are cut in the industry, and the extent of safety problems and uncertainty in drilling. One expert stated that contaminants can potentially travel miles from their source.

The reason these issues are getting so much press coverage lately -- The New York Times, PBS, ProPublica, NPR, and more -- is because oil and gas development is having an impact on more and more people around the country. Whether it is drinking water contamination, poisoned air, devastated real estate values, serious illnesses, or sick livestock, more and more communities--including individuals who have worked in the oil and gas industry--are questioning the industry's impacts and the ability of regulators to keep communities safe, and demanding stronger protections from government officials.