Does Hydraulic Fracturing Contaminate Drinking Water?

The Environmental Protection Agency released a study in June, 2015, on the effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on drinking water in areas close to fracking wells. The final press release for the study emphasized that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources. . . .” According to a November 30, 2016, report by American Public Media (APM) Reports and Marketplace.com, the lead headline that fracking has had no widespread contamination impacts to drinking water was a last-minute editorial change to the press release for the study; the less optimistic conclusion noting that “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources” have been identified has received much less publicity. The study itself identifies more than two dozen instances where drinking water supplies have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing.

After the press release, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board directed the EPA to show the underlying data supporting its claim of no widespread, systemic impacts. One member noted that the headline was “a value statement that’s not based on the science.” The Board also suggested that the agency should include and critically analyze its findings from three locations: Pavillion, Wyoming; Dimock, Pennsylvania; and Parker County, Texas. Water testing data from those locations was missing from the study, even though contamination incidents were reported at all three locations. The agency abandoned its testing before completion at the locations, despite complaints from nearby residents that their water was undrinkable. After the EPA turned the testing in Pavillion over to the State of Wyoming, the state found contamination “unlikely.” Research published this year by Stanford University faculty Dominic C. Giulio and Robert B. Jackson on data from Pavillion, however, found evidence of “impact to domestic wells as a result of legacy pit disposal practices.”

Oil and gas industry representatives publicized the EPA’s press release and the study as vindication of industry claims that fracking does not negatively impact groundwater. The number of fracking wells in the United States has increased from 24,000 in 2000 to 300,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. New York State banned hydraulic fracturing in 2015; the state legislature of Maryland also imposed a moratorium on fracking in 2015.

Related Reading:

Earthjustice.org, Fracking Across the United States, includes a map of “fraccidents,” reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters and explosions across the country.

Scott Tong, Fracking Draft From EPA Criticized by Scientists, Marketplace.org (Aug. 12, 2016).

Dominic C. Giulio & Robert B. Jackson, Impact to Underground Sources of Drinking Water and Domestic Wells from Production Well Stimulation and Completion Practices in the Pavillion, Wyoming, Field, 50 Envtl. Sci. Tech. 4524 (2016).

Alexandra M. Frumkin, Understanding the Political, Economic, and Environmental Factors that Influenced New York’s Decision to Ban Hydraulic Fracturing (2015), Scripps Senior Thesis, Paper 690, http://scholarship.claremont.edu/scripps_theses/690.

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