Thursday, February 21, 2013

What’s riding on the EPA’s water study in Pavillion WY Industry offensive intended to keep federal agency at bay

Technicians collect samples in Pavillion
Let the science decide the debate. Get politics out of it. We hear those directives routinely from politicians and partisans urging people to consider the risks and merits of fracking from one isolated contextual corner or another, or to never mind the broad discussion for now.

The EPA study into ground water pollution in Wyoming represents the latest example over the plasticity of scientific analysis that takes form under the heat and pressure of political forces. It’s about empirical data, what is said about the data, how exactly it is said, what is not said, and control over messages yet to be delivered that is causing confusion and serving political agendas.

The starting point of this thread is the EPA’s investigation into polluted water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Pavillion, Wyoming. The agency issued a summary of findings in late 2011. Testing of two deep monitoring wells found:

detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.

Testing of two drinking wells found:

chemicals consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds. The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards. In the fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed EPA’s data and recommended that affected well owners take several precautionary steps, including using alternate sources of water for drinking and cooking, and ventilation when showering. Those recommendations remain in place and EnCana [an operator] has been funding the provision of alternate water supplies.

The study drew fire from industry because of its explicit association of water pollution with fracking and drilling. In the interest of getting a clearer picture, the U.S. Geological Survey did follow up testing, and provided raw data with no interpretation. Not surprisingly, the EPA found that the USGS results verified the EPA’s findings, and the industry seized on inconsistencies between the data sets. The EPA results, and the methodology behind them, have continued to be a prime public target for industry representatives who claim the agency is overzealous and premature in releasing findings yet to be peer reviewed. (The agency released the findings for public comment corresponding to the peer review process.) The drilling company implicated in the EPA study, EnCana, has denied responsibility, and the industry – primarily through the efforts of the industry house organ Energy In Depth -- continues a campaign to discredit the EPA study.

The EPA association between fracking and groundwater pollution was even more newsworthy owing to the industry’s steadfast claims that fracking has never impacted water supplies. When the story broke nationally, it drew proportionately grand political responses. Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, characterized the EPA’s determination as “part of Obama’s war on fossil fuels and his determination to shut down the natural gas production” and “not based on sound science but on political science.”

The issue of the EPA’s study of pollution in Pavallion is fundamentally about scientists trying to track and understand dangerous chemicals flowing in the ground and threatening public health. But it is also about something else. The battle is setting the stage for how the oil and gas industry will or will not be regulated in the future. Oil and gas development is exempt from federal oversight – including both the Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste laws – and the industry wants to keep it that way. So do oil and gas states, which don’t want the federal government meddling in their decisions and control over exploitation of mineral resources within their borders.

Wyoming state officials, including governor Matt Mead, criticized the EPA’s conclusions and pushed for time for the state to debunk the work. In the face of the backlash, the EPA agreed to retest the wells and called on the USGS to conduct parallel tests. In an attempt to keep the political heat on, Energy In Depth last week held forth an internal EPA memo as evidence that the agency findings were misrepresented by press accounts, and some vague sense of scandal.

When the Associated Press and other outlets began breaking the story in early December, 2011, the headlines focused on the news of the day, which was that the EPA report associated the pollution in Pavillion to shale gas production.

EPA Report Links Fracking To Water Pollution… NPR
EPA: Fracking may Cause Groundwater Pollution… USA Today
EPA Implicates Fracking in Pollution at Wyoming state site… Associated Press

This week, Energy In Depth cited an email from Betsaida Alcantara, communications director for the EPA, to a string of her superiors as evidence that the press in fact got the story all wrong. The email shows that, in the wake of the political firestorm caused by the breaking story on Dec. 8 2011, Alcantara told the Associated Press editors that the headline and the word “implicates” was “unnecessarily inflammatory and irresponsible,” and she urged them to soften it.

As a newspaper reporter for 20 years, I have experienced many such situations, and it’s simply another day in the office when government officials grasp for control of a message based on the extent of the political grief it causes them. When public officials start attacking a news report not on factual errors but on the subjective levels of tone and presentation, it’s typically in the interest of damage control. That’s why in this country we generally depend on news from the Fourth Estate rather than from government outlets.

In the end, the memo from the EPA office to the AP editors points out no factual errors with the reportage, and changes nothing in the EPA’s own earlier press release of the Pavilion study, including this critical sentence: “The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production.” Yet Energy In Depth is using this note from an EPA staffer as an “I told you so.”

If this is telling us anything, though, it’s the strength of political pressures brought to bear on scientists trying to do their work, and the level of noise it introduces into the system at the hands of PR spin from all sides. (I will add that it’s all part of the necessary but often messy First Amendment process by which we govern ourselves in this country.)

What bearing does the Pavillion controversy have on the future? Plenty. The EPA is in the process of reviewing national data from Pavillion and elsewhere, where available, to assess the impact of fracking on groundwater supplies. Its comprehensive report, due out next year, will set the contextual baseline for future discussion about the need for regulatory reform. The Pavillion matter will test the will of the federal government to challenge industry and states who want to preserve the status quo in their pursuit of carbon riches in more than two dozen major shale gas basins spread across the lower 48 states.

EPA officials arrive to investigate water in Dimock, Pa
Photo James Pitarresi 
In the meantime the EPA has been on the retreat in the face of political opposition stoking an anti-regulatory mood by those who portray fracking as a key to economic stimulation and national independence. Last March, the agency dropped a case against Range Resources after staff scientists traced methane contamination of a private water well to nearby shale gas operations. As reported by Energy Wire, agency administrators withdrew the complaint after former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell intervened on behalf of the company, and Range refused to cooperate with future plans by the EPA to evaluate the impact of shale gas development on water.

In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the EPA found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, and methane in five of 64 private water wells – roughly 8 percent – near drilling and fracking operations. It concluded that those risks were mitigated by treatment systems installed in or planned for the homes. The mainstream press largely interpreted the EPA’s assessment of Dimock Water as an “all clear” sign, and agency officials made no attempts to dispel that characterization. Meanwhile, the EPA quietly turned the investigation of the water pollution over to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to analysis health impacts.

The parsing of the debate, and what is and is not said, is very much worth paying attention to. The tone coming out from the EPA regional offices tells us something about where Obama is headed with fracking in his second term. It also sets the stage for the person who Obama will choose to succeed Lisa Jackson to head the EPA. In the meantime, there is a wealth of privately-owned science – ranging from water samples to fracking recipes to waste disposal technology -- which will never see public light due to exemptions that enable non-disclosure. And the political hardball will continue. The stakes are high on all sides, so why should we expect anything else?


  1. To say that the gas industry is exempt from federal oversight isn't correct, but we'll let that sleeping dog keep on snoozing.

    The only reason there is any hype around this is because those opposed to drilling desperately wish it to be a peg to hang their hats on. It's a talking point, and a misleading one at that.

    I'd type out an extensive response, but John Hanger already hit the nail on the head here:

    1. Thanks for the Hanger link, Michael. He fairly cites rhetoric from both extremes making the EPA Pavillion study into something that suits their interests. But the fact remains that the findings can influence policy, and that is why both sides are so focused on them.

      Regarding federal oversight. States, not the feds, regulate the drilling industry, and exemption from both the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 2005 Energy Bill and the federal hazardous waste laws continues that approach. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

  2. Thanks for the balanced article Tom. Would you care to comment on whether chemical markers can aid the science in this kind of dispute.

  3. HI Ian, Chemical markers for fracking compounds are a promising idea yet to gained practical use. Andrew Revkin offers an overview here

  4. We are awaiting more information regarding new cases of methane migration here in our valley. You cite 8% but I am not sure we will ever know the true extent...and you could say that dog isn't's dead.

    1. Yoko, Thanks for the update from Dimock. Please pass along any new information.

    2. we have been told that the incidents of methane in homes and water lately are the result of a frozen methane vent. We have a repair rig on the Costello site. I'd take my hair dryer over to the site but then again I assume they have very sophisticated tech. Also told by an observer that they are fixing a hole in that well...