Fracking controversy heats up with well water contamination

Jan 10, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) investigation of water contamination in Texas, allegedly caused by hydraulic fracturing used in drilling for oil or natural gas, has flared into a volatile controversy or “fracking” fracas.

Ranchers in the West are troubled by the possibility that fracking could taint the groundwater they use for their families and livestock, and are keenly watching developments as the issue raises heightened health and pollution concerns.

Fracking is a drilling process that injects millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to free up gas or oil trapped deep underground by cracking shale formations. That technique and horizontal drilling have tapped vast oil and gas resources in the United States.

Environmentalists contend chemicals used in fracking easily can leach into drinking water. Proponents say it sharply reduces America’s dependence on imported foreign oil and helps reduce fuel costs, stimulating the economy.

The EPA has sampled water in Dimock, PA, Pavillion, WY, and Weatherford, TX, the past three years after residents complained their water turned foul after drilling commenced nearby. In each instance, the EPA found evidence of contamination, but declined to continue water sampling or discipline companies involved.

Last July, an internal EPA report indicated employees in the agency’s Philadelphia office wanted to continue monitoring Dimock’s tainted drinking water, but EPA headquarters closed the probe.

In 2012, the EPA decided to halt its investigation into possible well water contamination in Parker County, TX. On Christmas Eve last month, the EPA Office of Inspector General quietly made public a report concluding the EPA was justified in intervening to examine possible risks of gas drilling in Texas.

“The inspector general’s inquiry was started at the behest of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and other lawmakers who contend the EPA’s regional office in Texas, EPA Region 6, had exceeded its authority during the Parker County investigation. Many Republicans viewed the EPA’s investigation as a politically motivated attack against the oil and gas industry,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The EPA intervened in Texas when Range Resources Corp. of Fort Worth and state regulators failed to immediately act on complaints by homeowners about possible drinking water contamination, the inspector general’s report said.

It noted that such high levels of methane were found in the water supply of two homes that it posed a risk of explosion, and EPA tests also showed the water contained benzene, a known carcinogen, above EPA maximum contamination levels. Methane is the main component of natural gas.

The EPA issued an emergency order against Range Resources to provide drinking water to residents and better monitor a gas well. When Range Resources did not fully comply, the U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint in January, 2011, but withdrew it by March, 2012 because the EPA worried about costs and legal risks if a judge ruled against the EPA and weakened its ability to enforce the Safe Water Drinking Act, the report said.

Range Resources has filed a $3 million defamation lawsuit against one of the homeowners who complained about the water, asserting the water was contaminated before drilling started. The company has refused to participate in an EPA study into possible effects of fracking on drinking water, the report said.

Fracking is regulated on a state-by-state basis. An EPA rule on air emissions from fracking operations, known as “green completions,” is scheduled to take effect in 2015.

Reuters quoted Kevin Book, an analyst with Clearview Energy Partners, as saying EPA intervention into water fracking disputes is unlikely before congressional elections in November.

The news service also noted that Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, called fracking the “third rail” of U.S. energy policy and the Obama administration is reluctant to slow the expansion of natural gas production, which has enhanced a domestic manufacturing resurgence, lowered household energy costs and reduced so-called greenhouse emissions.

Steve Everly, a spokesman for the pro-fracking Energy in Depth, told Reuters that the EPA’s mission is to protect the environment, not attack productive industries. Energy companies are worried about EPA overreach, he said.

Al Armendariz led the EPA’s Dallas office when the original order was issued against Range Resources. He resigned in 2012 after Inhofe released a video of him saying the EPA would “crucify” oil and gas companies that violated environmental laws.

Armendariz is now with the Sierra Club.

He told Reuters that technical challenges hinder the EPA’s enforcement efforts. In 2012, the EPA inspected 870 extraction sites, concluding enforcement actions against only 53 as opposed to investigating 836 coal-fired units and citing 461 of them for air pollution incidents. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent