37-Year EPA Veteran: Oil & Gas “Industry is Targeting the Times” Because its Fracking Series “Had an Unprecedented Role in Prodding EPA into Action”
by Weston W. Wilson, environmental engineer, in a Climate Progress exclusive
As the boom in shale gas continues, the country finds itself at a crossroads. How will the government regulate hydraulic fracturing in order to keep air and drinking water safe?
In spite of the importance of these efforts, the oil and gas industry has launched yet another slick, well-funded campaign to resist oversight. Their campaign depicts EPA as an over-reaching bureaucracy driven to regulate companies into bankruptcy, killing jobs and preventing U.S. energy independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. EPA has had a limited role – too limited in fact – in regulating drilling, a responsibility that has been left almost entirely to the states.
The oil and gas industry has also criticized EPA’s effort to conduct a rigorous multi-year study of the potential environmental risks of a drilling technology known as fracking, which is driving the current drilling boom. But isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to have good science guiding a practice that may affect the water we drink and the air we breathe? And isn’t this EPA’s fundamental role?
This is not the first time that the EPA has studied fracking, nor the first time the industry has exerted strong pressure on EPA to soften the outcome.
In the 1980’s the agency set out to determine whether oil and gas industry waste should be considered hazardous waste. They produced a report that concluded there was no need to make the oil and gas industry follow the same rules as other industries when it came to disposing of their waste because, EPA alleged, the risks from drilling were low. But an early version of the same report concluded the waste was in fact hazardous and should be closely controlled. EPA scientists who had worked on the report blamed political pressure for the reversal.
This same pattern continued during my tenure at EPA. EPA’s 2004 report on hydraulic fracturing found little to no risk to water supplies. But this was contradicted by evidence of the toxic chemicals used by the industry that could create significant risks. The panel in charge of the final report was filled with industry representatives. Five of the seven members of that peer review panel were current or former employees of the oil and gas industry, including a representative from Halliburton.
Recently, the industry has attacked media venues for raising important questions about drilling practices.
Most of their attention has been focused on The New York Times, which has published a series of stories, each paired with a phone book-sized stack of original documents published on the Times website. This series of investigative reports has brought attention to the serious issues that must be addressed before we embrace natural gas as a cure-all to our energy woes.
One of the reasons the industry is targeting the Times is that its stories have had an unprecedented role in prodding EPA into action.
In March, for example, the Times ran several stories showing that hundreds of millions of gallons of natural gas wastewater was being dumped into Pennsylvania’s streams after limited treatment at community sewage plants. Often, these sewage treatment plants are short distances upstream from the next community’s drinking water intake. The Times reports revealed that federal and state officials were not monitoring these treatment facilities to prevent contaminants in this drilling waste from entering people’s drinking water system.
During Congressional hearings following the Times articles, EPA officials were grilled by federal legislators over the situation in Pennsylvania.
Within days of the Times story, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson personally intervened, catching a train to meet with officials from the agency’s Philadelphia office to find out why they had not taken an assertive role. One of her first stops was to call the regional administrator on the carpet — in part because the Times published leaked emails from EPA staff. These emails said the regional administrator told his staff not to put plans for the EPA’s national study of fracking in writing, because the public could then access the documents and would expect the agency to follow through.
EPA’s National Enforcement Investigation Center, the agency’s investigative arm, was directed to follow up on the finding that treatment plants were not removing some dangerous contaminants from waste water being discharged into Pennsylvania’s streams. With continued pressure from Jackson and EPA headquarters lawyers, EPA officials in the Pennsylvania regional office took a firmer stance demanding that testing of the sewage treatment plants be done.
Lawyers within the agency also combed through the leaked documents published by the Times and realized that communications between agency headquarters and the region had been, to put it kindly, less than accurate. They discovered that documents they had been told by EPA regional officials did not exist, the very documents needed to build an enforcement case, were now on the Times website, in full.
The enforcement division of EPA has stepped up their investigation into whether treatment plants were in violation of their Clean Water Act permits. Federal lawmakers have begun drafting legislation to require monitoring of radioactive materials and other contaminants in the oil and gas wastes.
In April, Pennsylvania told drilling companies to stop sending their waste water to municipal sewage treatment plants until strict standards are created.
These are positive developments. And it is incumbent upon EPA and the media to keep asking tough questions about proper regulation of drilling, despite industry pressure to maintain the status quo. Too much is at stake to repeat the mistakes of the past, for nothing short of protecting public health and welfare is at stake.
— Weston Wilson was an environmental engineer at the EPA for more than 37 years before leaving the agency in January, 2010. In 2004, Wilson sought whistle-blower protection based on his report to Congress about EPA’s study of hydraulic fracturing. His findings questioned EPA’s conclusion that there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing posed a threat to drinking water. “EPA produced a final report … that I believe is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law,” Wilson wrote to lawmakers.
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