EPA Still Burying Head in Sand on Key Fracking Contamination Cases

Earlier this week, NRDC finally received a response to a letter we sent last September to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy seeking an explanation for EPA’s sudden withdrawal from important investigations into suspected drinking water contamination from fracking in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

As I have previously written, we have seen a marked and deeply troubling trend at EPA in recent months where the agency has been abruptly pulling out of high-profile inquiries into potential fracking-related drinking water contamination – first in Parker County, TX, then in Pavillion, WY, and finally in Dimock, PA.  And there are important indications that suggest it should not have dropped any of these cases – with concerns about drinking water safety and ongoing fracking operations still lingering in the impacted communities.

Aside from leaving the residents of these places in the hands of state regulators that EPA had previously determined weren’t up to the job, this raises serious concerns about the adequacy of the agency’s ongoing, highly anticipated national study into the impacts of fracking on drinking water.

For these reasons, NRDC has been calling on EPA to reopen each of these investigations, finish them, and provide answers for why it left in the first place. Sadly, the response we received this week does not provide any new insights into the agency’s motivations in abandoning these cases.  Instead, it reiterates the, frankly, lame non-explanations that EPA has previously proffered.  As NRDC President Frances Beinecke observed:

“It is stunning that EPA has not only refused to complete its investigations, but continues to defend its actions with baseless arguments. This is a troubling trend that has to change so that the American public can have confidence in the agency’s dedication to truly understanding the risks of fracking, and protecting our drinking water.”

Perhaps most troubling is EPA’s evident position that, as long as alternative sources of water are available in places where residents’ drinking water has been compromised there is no need to further investigate the source or extent of the identified contamination.  That is the partial justification EPA provided for its withdrawal in all three places.

See, for example, what the agency writes about dropping the investigation in Dimock:

“The EPA did find elevated levels of contaminants in Dimock well water at five homes at levels that could present a health concern.  However, at the time that the agency concluded its work in Dimock, the residents had or were going to have their own treatment systems that reduce concentrations of contaminants to acceptable levels at the tap.” [emphasis added]

As my colleague Amy Mall has put it, EPA apparently believes that “because a homeowner with contaminated water could afford to purchase water from an alternative source, the risks had lessened.” In other words, if you’re wealthy enough to buy your own water, EPA feels it doesn’t need to worry about how – or the extent to which – the water was contaminated by nearby gas development.

Amazingly, EPA’s letter goes on to try to misrepresent the findings an Inspector General’s report on the agency’s handling of the Texas investigation. EPA asserts that the IG “concluded that our exercise of discretion to resolve the matter [in Parker County] was consistent with all applicable rules and policies,”  making it sound like the IG agreed with EPA’s decision to withdraw from the case.  But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While the IG did find that EPA didn’t violate any laws, contrary to EPA’s suggestion, it found that the agency had not yet determined the overall risks posed by nearby fracking operations to residents’ drinking water had not yet been determined and that the agency needs to take further action to assess it. As Amy reported” “the IG concluded that ‘…the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined.’ The IG recommends that EPA take action to determine whether imminent and substantial endangerment still exists in the area—because it might—and to ensure water quality testing is done according to EPA standards.”

In all of these cases, EPA’s sudden apathy once an alternative source of water is identified demonstrates an extraordinary lack of curiosity on the part of an agency that is statutorily charged with evaluating the extent to which fracking presents a risk to drinking water supplies.  If it decides its work is done once contaminated water supplies have been replaced, how can it possibly answer the difficult, but fundamental, questions as to how the contamination occurred, how many people might be affected, and how to prevent it from happening again?

It is further worrying that EPA seems only to be concerned about current users of the water.  What if someone new moves into one of these areas and wants to drill a new well into the contaminated groundwater or aquifer?  And what would happen if the contamination were to spread to the supplies of other current or future water users?

If you’re as disappointed as we are in EPA’s continued failure to take these cases seriously, please join us in calling on the agency to reopen its investigations.  These communities – and the American public – want and deserve to know how their water is becoming contaminated, who is responsible, and how EPA will prevent it from happening again in the future.