My previous blog post expressed outrage that the EPA chose to step away from enforcing the law when drinking water was unsafe in Texas, even when nearby natural gas operations were identified as the most probably cause.
Our concerns haven't changed but, in a different case, we applaud EPA for taking action to hold an oil and gas company responsible for damaging 27 streams and wetlands in West Virginia (including 16 fracking sites). Under a settlement agreement, Chesapeake Energy's subsidiary will spend an estimated $6.5 million to restore these 27 sites and to implement a comprehensive plan to comply with federal and state water protection laws at the company’s natural gas extraction sites in West Virginia. In addition, the company will pay a fine of $3.2 million, half of which will go to the State of West Virginia.
The settlement requires that the company fully restore the wetlands and streams wherever feasible, monitor the restored sites for up to ten years to assure the success of the restoration, and implement a comprehensive compliance program to ensure future compliance with the Clean Water Act and applicable state law. The company will also perform "compensatory mitigation" to try to offset impacts from its damage--this could include purchasing credits from a wetland mitigation bank located in a local watershed.
I visited one of the sites damaged by Chesapeake a few years ago, and my blog has a photo of the stream destruction. The company pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act at this site prior to this settlement agreement.
An obvious question is why did the EPA fully enforce the law at these sites in West Virginia, where streams and wetlands were damaged, but not in Parker County, Texas, where an underground source of drinking water is at stake? We don't know the answer to that, and the IG report released earlier this week doesn't shed any real light.
It may be more straightforward for a regulator to investigate damage to streams and wetlands that are easily visible on the surface when compared to investigating impacts on underground sources of drinking water, but investigations of drinking water contamination are conducted on a regular basis.
Aquifer contamination near natural gas operations, however, requires regulators to consider the role that fracking may have played--the third rail of energy politics, subject to more intense criticism by industry. Neither one of these is a justifiable reason for a regulator to step away from investigating drinking water contamination. We urge the EPA to reopen its investigation of the contamination in Parker County, Texas, as well as in Dimock, Pennsylvania and Pavillion, Wyoming.