API: USGS did better job testing Pavillion water than EPA

Analysis of US Geological Survey testing of water samples taken from one of two US Environmental Protection Agency monitoring wells at Pavillion, Wyo., raises questions about the how EPA constructed monitoring wells and tested water samples, an American Petroleum Institute spokesman said.

Some Pavillion residents complained about drinking water, suggesting natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing contaminated certain water wells. In December 2011, EPA said it was “likely” that fracing contributed to water contamination based upon results from EPA’s two deep monitoring wells.

EPA released its conclusion in a draft report that identified levels of methane, ethane, diesel compounds, and phenol. Later, EPA retested the water in the Pavillion area.

Erik Milito, API director of upstream, told reporters in an Oct. 18 conference call that it appears EPA failed to follow sound scientific practices at Pavillion. Consequently, the idea of flawed research raises concerns about EPA’s pending national study on fracing and drinking water sources, he said.

“Unscientific testing could produce flawed results that could result in major adverse impacts on shale energy development and the vast potential it has to contribute to US jobs, US economic recovery, and US energy security,” Milito said.

USGS results were inconsistent with EPA’s results, he said. Given questions about EPA’s research, USGS collected its own scientific findings as part of a collaboration among the state of Wyoming, USGS, EPA, and the Wyoming Tribes. USGS did not analyze its findings (OGJ Online, Sept. 27, 2012).

Encana Oil & Gas (USA) owns wells in the area and questions the source of some chemicals found in the EPA water well samples (OGJ Online, Jan. 2, 2012).

The Calgary oil company argues contaminants found in Pavillion water wells are naturally occurring, and the two test wells that the EPA drilled in 2010 were improperly constructed.

API questions EPA

Milito said API believes USGS did a better job than EPA in analyzing the Pavillion water samples. For instance, USGS did not test samples from one of the two EPA water monitoring wells “because that well was unable to provide representative samples due to its low-flow characteristics.”

USGS tests did not contain several key compounds previously identified by EPA, he said. Those compounds included glycols and 2-butoxyethanol. Other materials previously found by the EPA were found at significantly lower concentrations by the USGS.

“In addition, while EPA has yet to acknowledge this, hydrocarbons are naturally occurring and have historically been detected in groundwater in the Pavillion area,” Milito said. “It is not unexpected to find hydrocarbons in groundwater in a hydrocarbon-bearing formation.”

He called the Pavillion analysis “critically important” because EPA needs to “start from scratch” in its procedures to drill water monitoring wells, collect, and analyze samples.

API believes EPA’s flaws include improper water monitoring well construction and development, possible cross-contamination of groundwater during EPA’s monitoring well drilling, development, and sampling, and misrepresentation of monitoring well depths vs. area drinking water well depths.

“If EPA thinks its investigation at Pavillion has produced scientifically useful information, then it may proceed in the same inexpert way at other testing sites,” Milito said, urging the federal government to avoid “regulatory obstacles based on flawed research.”

Others support EPA

The Sierra Club, Earthworks, and the Natural Resources Defense Council worked with independent hydrologist Tom Myers to analyze the USGS findings and compare those findings with the original EPA report. Myers concluded USGS results supported EPA’s initial findings.

In an Oct. 3 news release, the Sierra Club, Earthworks, and NRC said Myer's analysis of USGS findings supported the EPA’s draft report conclusion that gas drilling and fracing could have contaminated the Wind River aquifer near Pavillion.

Bruce Baizel, an attorney for Earthworks oil and gas accountability project, said, “It’s long past time for states and industry to stop denying oil and gas development’s environmental problems and start working on fixing them.”

Deb Nardone, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas campaign director, said EPA’s report “raises the alarm on the public general health threats posed by dirty and dangerous fracing and the need to rein in an oil and gas industry that remains unchecked and unaccountable for their toxic pollution.”

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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