EPA Downplayed Risk to Water from Fracking Last Minute

A new report by Marketplace and American Public Media investigated a controversial finding in EPA’s landmark five-year study on the impacts of fracking on drinking water. This finding downplayed the threats to drinking water from fracking. The journalists found that it was added just weeks before EPA’s draft report was released.

EPA’s draft report included the conclusion that researchers “did not find evidence that [fracturing activities] have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” This conclusion was widely criticized as being scientifically unsupported, including by EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Board (SAB).  NRDC and our partners have also been raising this issue since the study was released. 

It is unclear why this finding was added at the last minute, but what is clear is that EPA must follow the recommendations of the SAB and other independent scientists and remove this problematic finding from the final report.

Documents obtained by the reporters show how the language in EPA’s study changed over time. In early June, the headline and subheading of EPA’s press release read “EPA Study Shows Potential Vulnerabilities to Drinking Water from Hydraulic Fracturing Process; Agency identified small number of documented impacts relative to number of fracked wells” but was then changed by June 3rd to read “EPA Releases Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities; Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources”. These mirrored changes to the study itself:

  • April 24, 2015: The draft executive summary read, in part, “Evidence from multiple sources indicates that hydraulic fracturing activities have contaminated drinking water resources in a variety of documented cases…Despite these risks, the number of documented impacts is quite low…A low rate of documented impacts does not minimize the effect experienced by citizens whose drinking water resources have been impacted.”
  • May 12, 2015: Following a May 4th EPA briefing with the Whitehouse, it was revised to read “We did not find evidence of widespread, systematic impacts. The number of identified cases was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells. This could reflect the rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors.”
  • May 20, 2015: The conclusion was slightly revised to read “We EPA did not find evidence of that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” and this phrase was deleted: “a low rate of documented impacts does not minimize the effect experienced by citizens whose drinking water resources have been impacted.”
  • June 4, 2015: The final version released in the draft report read “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells. This finding could reflect a rarity of effects on drinking water resources, but may also be due to other limiting factors.”

The decision to downplay the drinking water contamination and remove the language acknowledging the effects to people whose drinking water has been impacted is troubling, misleading, and does a great disservice to the American people. Just as with climate science, the overwhelming scientific consensus of independent subject matter experts should be heeded. EPA must preserve its scientific integrity and issue the final report by adopting the Science Advisory Board’s recommendations.

About the Authors

Briana Mordick

Senior Scientist, Land & Wildlife and Climate programs
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