Climate

As EPA Struggles With Fracking Pollution Data, Polluters Safely Settle Lawsuits

CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

Before Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation fracked inside the property of Frederick and Debra Roth, the couple’s groundwater had always been clean.

Their water had no visible gases, malodors or off-tastes, according to court documents, and the Roths knew that. Part of the deal was that Cabot would test their groundwater before drilling began, monitor it, disclose test ,results and most importantly, promise not to disturb the couple’s lifestyle. Otherwise, the contract said according to court documents, Cabot would take “all steps necessary” to return everything back to normal.

But in August of 2010, five months after fracking began, the Roths noticed a disturbing change. Their water was brown, cloudy, and started to smell. Event the toilets that used the polluted water showed yellow and pink staining. Mistrusting their groundwater, the Roths, who lived outside rural Springville, Pennsylvania, stopped drinking the water, and filed a lawsuit that the company promptly challenged.

“In most of these cases the company says the contamination is pre-existing … that it’s naturally occurring,” said Tate Kunkle, who represented the Roths but can’t comment directly on the case because the settlement reached in 2013 precludes him and his clients from doing so. “The biggest problem when you get these cases is to link the precise [polluting] avenue,” he added in an interview with ThinkProgress.

Unearthing oil and gas from shale rock by injecting chemicals and water into wells has happened for decades. Yet fracking — or hydraulic fracturing as the industry prefers it — has been a household word only in recent times, as the practice ballooned across the country when technological innovation and rising energy demands allowed companies to pursue reservoirs that used to be too expensive to exploit.

The fracking boom of the past decade has brought jobs to residents, royalties to landowners, tax revenues to governments, and profits to corporations. But despite the bonanza, fracking remains a controversial topic. Lawsuits, together with mounting reports of rural communities dealing with failed aquifers, have sparked queries on the effects that fracking has on the environment, and in particular, groundwater.

In 2009, Congress told the Environmental Protection Agency to study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. This much-awaited report is ongoing and depending on its findings, experts said it could theoretically be the preamble to a federal fracking rule. After all, the embattled Mercury Air Toxics Standard — commonly referred to as MATS — started in a similar fashion.

No “widespread, systemic impacts”

Last summer, the EPA said in its draft report that fracking has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water. The landmark statement emboldened the industry’s position that fracking is safe while angering critics who say fracking creates a slew of environmental concerns, including an increase in greenhouse emissions.

But since that draft report was released, EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board questioned the findings twice already. In the most recent draft peer review report released last month, the board said it’s “concerned” that major findings “are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft assessment report.”

In preparation for a final peer review report on the EPA, the board met via teleconference Monday, and will do so again Thursday. While at times technical and difficult to follow, these meetings nonetheless showcase the influential opinions of 31 esteemed experts that could sway a report capable of influencing fracking policy and even lawsuits for years to come.

On Monday, board members met for a full afternoon after listening to two hours of public comments from supporters and critics, including some who claimed their lives have been ruined after fracking pollution destroyed their private wells. “I’m not sure that it’s happening to everybody, but it happened to us and I’m sure it’s happened to others,” said Victor Furman, from Texas, during the teleconference.

Many felt otherwise, like Jackie Stewart, representing the Ohio chapter of Energy In Depth, a pro-fracking group, who said the EPA’s draft report “is sound and is in line with an overwhelming number of studies,” including a recent three-year study from the University of Cincinnati that found no groundwater contamination in Ohio.

For the rest of the afternoon, the board at times discussed highly technical details of the EPA draft report. Still, at issue was a perceived lack of data in the report, and whether the agency can conclude that fracking represents a “widespread” and “systemic” problem.

Board members who’ve worked in the industry said they rarely witnessed harms in fracking operations and believed the EPA statement is accurate. On the other hand, most board members said a lack of data could mean the issue hasn’t been studied enough.

“I really wish that we could revise this somehow to stress that the connection between what’s in the report and the statement is really hard to see,” said Thomas Young, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis.

A divided opinion

But the back-and-forth happening in the public sphere and within the board doesn’t mean data associating fracking with water pollution hasn’t been produced over the years. Instead, experts reached said it shows that the United States lacks a uniform way to track water pollution and that court settlements could encourage under-reporting.

“The settlement will be a secret. We won’t know how much was paid, they will be barred from talking about the case,” said Richard Parker, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, while referring to what’s been happening in litigation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. “We are seeing a lot of these secret settlements,” he said in an interview with ThinkProgress, “which allows the oil and gas industry to say, well see, we’ve never actually been found guilty.

“We won’t have data until a regulatory structure is put in place that requires companies to generate that data, and that regulatory structure is really not in place,” he said.

And yet researchers produce studies constantly. For instance, a 2014 Pennsylvania study found the methane concentration of residential water wells at homes one mile from a fracking well was six times higher than it was in homes located farther away from wells. Levels of ethane, another natural gas component, were 23 times higher in homes closer to fracking wells.

That same year, Pennsylvania made public 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas drilling operations. And in Texas last year, scientists found elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the drinking water near North Texas’ Barnett Shale region — where a fracking boom sprouted more than 20,000 oil and gas wells.

Last month, however, Amy Townsend-Small, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati said she couldn’t detect one instance of contamination after a three-year study in Ohio. “So what happened in Pennsylvania did not happen in Ohio,” said Townsend-Small in an interview with ThinkProgress. She noted the study’s data is available online.

These contrasting studies surely fuel the long back-and-forth dynamics now driving the debate, but experts said findings as a whole may be actually showing that best practices exist and that water pollution risks can be averted if the proper checks and balances are in place. “There is a space here for win-win solutions whereby federal jurisdictions are restored, regulatory standards are put in place for monitoring and reporting, and the right incentives are set for frackers to do responsible oil and gas drilling,” Parker said.

Whether such balance in policy and concerns will be reached remains to be seen. What is clear is the industry’s determination to keep the status quo, even though research has found that extracting natural gas through fracking could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal because of fugitive methane emissions at these sites are greater than releases from conventional gas wells.

The Science Advisory Board could release its final peer review report in the summer, sources reached said, while the final EPA report could be published as early as next year.