New hope for fracking victims from EPA's inspector general?

It’s a question we have been asking urgently at NRDC: Why would the Environmental Protection Agency prematurely shut down its study of the water quality impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming? Now, there’s a hopeful sign that the agency’s Office of Inspector General will be asking that same question.

That’s an encouraging turn of events in the long and frustrating story of EPA’s crucial national study of fracking. The IG’s memorandum announcing the study was dated February 5, the same day as a Washington press conference on this issue, including citizens from the three states.

There’s no thunderous language in the memo, written by Dan Engelberg, the IG’s director of water issues, to Nancy Stoner, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for water. Nor does the memo say a word about EPA’s inexplicable abandonment of studies in Parker County, TX, Pavillion, WY, and Dimock, PA. But Engelberg’s promise to “evaluate the EPA’s and states’ responses” to water-quality threats gives us reason for hope. In fact, the IG’s study must make a detailed analysis of what the agency did in those cases.

Last July, I detailed EPA’s decisions. By backing away, despite credible evidence of water-quality contamination, EPA effectively left the protection of these communities in the hands of state regulators. That makes zero sense, because it was the sleeping-watchdog performance of state regulators that initially made EPA’s studies necessary.

In September, NRDC sent a letter to new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “In each of these cases, state agencies ignored citizen complaints, and the public was heartened when EPA became involved to provide important federal scientific analysis,” Frances Beinecke wrote. “When EPA abruptly withdrew from each, the public lost confidence that EPA was truly dedicated to investigating the risks of hydraulic fracturing and ensuring full enforcement of federal environmental statutes.”

By the end of 2013, we still hadn’t received an answer to that letter. But in December, the IG did release a report about the Texas investigation. As my colleague Amy Wall pointed out, that report made clear that “…the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined.” The IG found that the agency had not violated its regulations or policies in backing away from these investigations, but it didn’t offer any real justification for the agency’s actions.

On January 10, McCarthy answered NRDC’s September 13 letter. In that response, the administrator cited the December IG report’s finding: EPA had withdrawn its emergency order because the agency had reached an agreement with the company, Range Resources; the costs of litigation would be too high; and “immediate human health risks were believed to have been addressed.” But McCarthy’s response was anything but reassuring.

In all three cases, the EPA argued unconvincingly that, as long as citizens in the contaminated areas had other sources of safe water, the agency did not have to pursue further the origins of the contamination. If it weren’t so disturbing, that argument would be laughable. We need to know what’s causing the contamination, how widespread the health danger is, and what can be done to remedy the environmental damage.

One of the contributors to the December IG report on the Texas case was Dan Engelberg, the author of the memo announcing this new, presumably wider IG study. So he is already familiar with the issues in that one location. Now he must look closely at the Wyoming and Pennsylvania cases—and at EPA’s entire process of studying the environmental effects of fracking.

We believe that any fair examination of EPA’s decision-making should result in a strong set of recommendations, urging the agency to do what we’ve been asking all along: Reopen the three investigations and take them to their logical conclusion. That’s the only real remedy for the loss of credibility that agency has suffered by backing down, and the only way to protect the endangered residents of these three communities.