Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Record shows EPA staff warned of Dimock water pollution Report exposes disconnect between results and action

Last week the LA Times reported that the federal EPA dropped an investigation into water pollution associated with shale gas development in Dimock Pennsylvania despite evidence of problems. The reason: political pressure from the industry.

I have been covering the Dimock story since before the EPA investigation began in January 2012. (It provided one of several narrative lines for my book Under the Surface.) The recent LA Times report neatly squares with the story line that has been developing over the last two years. Specifically, the disengagement of the EPA represents a story that works in favor of the extraction of oil and gas from shale through the controversial process of high volume hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. Yet it’s one that conflicts with industry spin – that the EPA dropped investigations in Dimock and elsewhere because they lack merit or have failed to turn up any problems tying fracking with groundwater contamination.

The story in Dimock goes even deeper than the recent LA times report, and I will get to that shortly.

First a recap: The LA Times report, by Neela Banerjee, cited leaked information from the EPA that showed “staff members warned their superiors that several wells had been contaminated with methane and substances such as manganese and arsenic, most likely because of local natural gas production.” More specifically, Banerjee reports:

The presentation, based on data collected over 4 1/2 years at 11 wells around Dimock, concluded that "methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality." The presentation also concluded that "methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking [hydraulic fracturing] and other gas well work."

This is important and relevant, but not all that much of a shock, given what the record already showed. In July 2013, after months of field study, the EPA publically released 725 pages of testing results from the Dimock investigation and a brief summary. The agency found hazardous substances -- specifically arsenic, barium, manganese and methane -- “at levels that could present a health concern” in the water supply of five of 64 homes – roughly 8 percent. The report concluded that no further action was required because “In all cases the residents have now or will have their own treatment systems that can reduce concentrations of those hazardous substances to acceptable levels at the tap.” In short, households had been notified of the problem, and industry was making provisions to provide filters or alternative water supplies. (My original post can be found here, with a photo gallery of investigation here.)

The mainstream press, encouraged by industry public relations, widely mis-interpreted the EPA press release as a sign that “the water is safe.” Since then, and until now, the Dimock story has faded into background of the fracking debate for the mainstream press, but not for those who have been following the story closely. In addition to raising this issue again, Saturday’s LA Times piece brings to light another critical dynamic: The decision to discontinue the federal investigation in Dimock, and forego the next logical investigative step to trace the pollution to its source, was not made by the rank and file staffers on the ground immersed in the investigation, but by higher-ups in Washington. The LA Times report is consistent with information I have gleaned from various sources in the EPA. It’s also consistent with another decision by the agency’s leadership to abruptly drop an investigation into a link between fracking and ground water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming.

In 2011, the agency issued a summary of its investigation into polluted water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Pavillion.  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.

Yet, facing intense pressure from the industry to butt out, the EPA abruptly decided to shelve plans to push ahead with a peer-reviewed study of the project, and relinquished control of the investigation to state officials supportive of the industry and unenthusiastic for federal involvement in their regulatory affairs. The EPA also dropped a similar investigation in Weatherford Texas in the face of legal threats from the industry.  (More on that here.)

It’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of all this. EPA involvement represents a special kind of threat to the industry because it could open the door for federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The first governs what goes into the ground, and the second governs the handling and disposal of hazardous waste. The fracking industry enjoys exemptions from both.

In words and action, Obama has shown enthusiasm for shale gas development. It follows that he has directed his EPA not to interfere with an industry that is beginning to spread its wings across the lower 48 states (map here) with the promise of cheap domestic energy. Meanwhile, Obama, whose first term was focused on economic stimulation, is now choosing his environmental battles as he deals with pushback from the industry and its many allies in Congress. A day prior to withdrawing from Wyoming, Obama announced on the world stage that he would seek to regulate coal emissions under the Clean Air Act. The Keystone Pipeline is another bargaining chip that remains on the table.

The LA Times piece may energize the debate over the EPA’s retreat from the fracking issue and shake an air of complacency about states’ ability and willingness to oversee the industry. At the very least, it has provoked some powerful environmental lobbies. Kate Sinding, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, wrote in her blog this week:

EPA simply walked away and asked the public and the residents of Dimock to take its word for it. Indeed, the agency did not even mention the word “methane” at all in its press release announcing the end of the investigation. As a result, it was widely reported in the mainstream press that EPA had found the water in Dimock was “safe” to drink (see, for example, here and here). This perception persists among many in the general public.

So now for the part of the story that the LA Times piece does not cover:

After the EPA issued the Dimock results last year, the agency quietly turned the investigation over to a sister agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (There was no mention of this in the EPA press release summarizing the Dimock results, but links to records, along with my report, can be found here). The ATSDR lacks the enforcement muscle of the EPA, but it does advise the agency concerning health impacts from pollution. The Dimock investigation faces an uncertain fate in the hands of the ATSDR, which has a relatively small budget and staff and is notoriously slow.  Has the Dimock investigation been sent there to languish on the shelves of unattended science?

Since the EPA’s file on Dimock landed in the ATSDR office, I have been checking in with agency spokeswoman Bernadette Burden. Last year she said the agency did not have a time frame for the results and their release. Asked for an update this week, she replied “we hope to have it out before the end of 2013.”

It’s a reply that, not surprisingly, offers plenty of political wiggle room.


  1. Thanks for delving in deeper and clarifying this murky situation. Why is it that politicians say "let's make our decisions based on the science" and then interfere with the science?

    1. If I may jump in and answer your rhetorical question, science may have gotten the "wrong" answer.

    2. Michael, I take that to mean science that does not square with their political objectives? Yes, this happens all the time, and I don't mean to be cynical. Political objectives are important aspect in the business of governing. But I agree that it is critically important that publically funded science done in the interest of public health be completed as scheduled rather than struck down by a special interest. Rather than science informing political decisions, here you have political decisions influencing the outcome of science.

    3. And thanks, Sue, for bringing this up.

    4. Science is a tool for discovering the realities of our universe. Deciding not to use that tool or using it in a biased manner will not change the realities of our universe. Reality has no political bias, it just is.

      So, when a scientist is presented with data indicating that there may be a problem with groundwater contamination due to shale gas extraction, ignoring that data or passing it off onto some other agency (which is likely to also ignore thae data) will not change the actual reality of the situation. If there is a problem with the groundwater, there is a problem with the groundwater whether anyone looks at the data or not.

      If in fact, shale gas extraction is damaging groundwater, refusing to examine that damage will not make the damage go away. I think it therefore follows that if, at some point in the future, some poor child is lying in the hospital in serious condition because of groundwater polluted by drilling and/or fracking, that will be partly due to the "scientists" who turned a blind eye on the data because of political expediency. Which makes me wonder how certain people sleep at night.....really, if there is any chance at all that damage to the groundwater is occurring due to drilling and/or fracking, then the scientists--and the industry itself--should be halting the drilling and fracking and studying the situation like mad. Sweeping evidence under the rug is just asking for a big mess (and possible human tragedy) later on.

    5. Tom, thanks for clarifying my stupidly glib answer.

      A concern of mine about shale gas and oil extraction and how its unencumbered by pesky federal regulations and pre-drilling site characterization is that the burden of proof falls on the environmental protection side. Not on the polluter. And any corporate environmental attorney worth its salt, will have a long list of environmental consultants for expert-witness expertise. Doubt is easy to establish given the many steps involved with environmental sampling, analysis and interpretation of results.