EPA risks a crisis of confidence in its dedication to protecting drinking water from fracking risks

EPA announced last week that it was dropping an investigation into water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming--before it was completed. Everyone wants to know why.

EPA has been investigating the water in Pavillion for years now. After new natural gas drilling several years ago, residents began reporting their water had strong odors, turned black, and tasted bad. Because the state regulators in Wyoming ignored their concerns, residents asked the U.S. EPA to help them. We were encouraged when EPA said they would investigate. The agency's initial findings in 2009 identified contamination in 11 water wells, including natural gas, toxic chemicals that are found in drilling and fracking fluids, and volatile organic compounds. 

In 2011, EPA released additional results, and concluded that "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." EPA proposed three possible ways that the fracking chemicals could have gotten into ground water: poor well construction, fracking fluid moving through underground formations, or fracking creating new fractures or enlarging existing ones and thereby increasing the connectivity of the fracture system. In 2012, the United States Geological Survey released its own data from Pavillion, consistent with the findings from EPA. More recently, EPA announced it was accepting public comment and then planned to finalize its report and submit it to a peer review process.

Last week, however, EPA abruptly announced that it "does not plan to finalize or seek peer review of its draft Pavillion groundwater report released in December 2011." At the same time, the state of Wyoming announced that it would take the reins on the investigation into Pavillion's water, and release a final report by September 30, 2014--more than a year away. Wyoming states it will conduct more water testing and retain the services of an independent expert to assist with the reviews, investigations, analyses and preparation of final reports, possibly funded by Encana, the oil and gas company involved in Pavillion operations.

Why the change in plans?  Jeff Locker, a Pavillion farmer, stated: “The state of Wyoming is already on record, through action and inaction, as denying that Pavillion’s groundwater contamination is a cause for concern.” John Fenton, chairman of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, stated: "We went to EPA for help after the State of Wyoming and Encana refused to address the public health impacts of unbridled development in the Pavillion area." And Ronald Oldman, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho tribe’s business council, said EPA has a legal duty to consult with the tribe, due to tribal resources being involved, yet “that didn’t happen as part of their dialogue with the governor.” According to a news report, "the tribe also expressed concern that Wyoming’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will play a key role in future study despite a federal court injunction more than 40 years old that bars the commission from trying to exert any authority over minerals on tribal lands."

We don't know why EPA is halting its Pavillion investigation, or why it has dragged out for as long as it has. But we are very concerned about a pattern of EPA stepping down from important, and controversial, cases of drinking water contamination that seem to be linked to oil and gas operations.

For example, in 2010, the EPA issued an emergency administrative order regarding underground drinking water source contamination in Parker County, Texas because water samples demonstrated the presence of methane, benzene, toluene, ethane, propane, and hexane in two domestic water wells fed by an underground source of drinking water and the isotopic fingerprint analysis of methane obtained from the water wells and two nearby gas wells indicated that gases from the water and the gas wells are “likely to be from the same source.” Just like in Wyoming, the EPA found that the state agency with jurisdiction over such matters—in this case the Texas Railroad Commission —had not taken sufficient action to address the endangerment or had no intention of taking such action. Then the TRRC held some hearings and concluded that the gas wells did not contribute to contamination of any domestic water wells. EPA withdrew its Emergency Order in March, 2012. In February, 2013, alarmed by reports that underground sources of drinking water in Parker County appear to remain contaminated and may still pose imminent and substantial endangerment to human health, NRDC asked the EPA to re-open its investigation of this case. EPA has not responded to our request.

Another example: In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the state's own water testing found that drinking water had been contaminated with methane, and the state found an oil and gas company responsible and ordered it to provide residents with clean drinking water. But the state later reversed course. Concerned community residents who, like those in Pavillion and Parker County, felt abandoned by their state regulators, asked the EPA to step in to help them. In January, 2012, EPA agreed to conduct their own investigation into the water contamination, and to begin immediate deliveries of temporary fresh water to four Dimock families. Later in the year, EPA stated that the drinking water supplies of 61 families were safe to drink, meaning that no contaminants exceeded dangerous levels, but did not make any conclusions with respect to whether oil and gas production contaminated the aquifer with methane or other contaminants. Again, EPA dropped the investigation, leaving local residents without final answers. Fortunately, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is reviewing water sampling results in Dimock. Among other things, it is examining the risks of long-term exposures to the water through showering, drinking, bathing and washing, as well as risks that might be compounded when people are exposed to multiple toxicants.

As NRDC wrote to EPA earlier this year, Americans across the country are watching this case and EPA’s actions to protect drinking water from oil and gas operations. EPA has the authority and duty to step in where there is evidence that the domestic water from an underground drinking water source may pose imminent and substantial endangerment to human health, and the relevant state agency has not sufficiently addressed the potential endangerment. To do anything less would risk the confidence of communities nationwide that are faced with oil and gas production operations within residential areas and near sources of drinking water. Communities must know that EPA will take action to thoroughly investigate and protect them from harms inflicted by the oil and gas industry. Today, with the latest news from Pavillion, that is not the case.