Pavillion draft report did not condemn fracing, EPA official says

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s draft report of its investigation of possible groundwater contamination from natural gas exploration and production near Pavillion, Wyo., never implied that hydraulic fracturing was unsafe, an EPA official told a House subcommittee on Feb. 1.

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s draft report of its investigation of possible groundwater contamination from natural gas exploration and production near Pavillion, Wyo., never implied that hydraulic fracturing was unsafe, an EPA official told a House subcommittee on Feb. 1.

“We make clear that the causal link to hydraulic fracturing has not been demonstrated conclusively, and that our analysis is limited to the particular geologic conditions in the Pavillion gas field and should not be assumed to apply to fracturing in other geologic settings,” James B. Martin, EPA’s Region 8 administrator in Denver, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

“It should be noted that fracturing in Pavillion is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells—production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country,” he added.

Martin testified one day after EPA posted 622 new pages related to the investigation at its web site. Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-Pa.) said they were made public 2 weeks after EPA originally intended to quit taking public comments on the draft report, although it has extended the deadline by 45 days to Mar. 12.

“Time and again, [the subcommittee has] demonstrated that this agency is substituting outcome-driven science for rigorous objective science,” he declared. “EPA’s investigation of groundwater contamination in Pavillion appears to be another example of politics trumping policy and advocacy trumping science.”

‘A work in progress’

Brad Miller (D-Md.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, disagreed. He said the draft report was the product of 3 years’ research, it is subject to public comment and a peer review, and EPA is seeking nominations for disinterested persons to conduct that review over 30 days. “In other words, the Pavillion study is a work in progress,” he said.

Martin said EPA followed its standard sampling and analysis protocols in its investigation, subjected the inquiry to the agency’s highest quality assurance procedures, had an independent contractor and EPA’s quality assurance manager audit data quality and technical systems in the laboratory and in the field, and use professional judgment to determine data’s appropriate use where sample holding times were exceeded.

The agency also delayed the draft report’s release for several weeks to let EnCana USA, the gas field’s operator; Wyoming state officials, Indian tribes, other federal agencies, and other stakeholders review data and supporting information, the EPA regional official said. “We have applied the highest standards of scientific rigor,” he maintained. “We hope and expect to continue in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation with Wyoming, the tribes, and others as we conduct a peer review and consider additional study which may be made at this site.”

Two other witnesses disputed his characterization of EPA’s actions during the inquiry. Thomas E. Doll, supervisor of Wyoming’s oil and gas conservation commission, said that the draft report was issued with incomplete data and technically inadequate conclusions, and without consulting appropriate state officials. Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver, said it clearly has deficiencies that should have been addressed with state regulators who were more intimately acquainted with the aquifer in question.

“I believe that most EPA employees are dedicated to doing the right thing to protect the environment,” she said. “In a situation like Pavillion, where the conclusions were rushed out without proper review and verification, it raises the question of undue political influence.”

Consultations with state

Doll said Wyoming agencies are concerned that EPA likely introduced synthetic and organic chemicals as it drilled, completed, tested, and sample its two monitoring wells. He also questioned Martin’s statement that the agency consulted frequently with the state throughout its investigation.

“EPA notified Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality that it was drilling the monitoring wells literally as the rigs were moving in,” Doll said. Martin responded that EPA spoke frequently with Wyoming’s DEQ, adding: “I believe our consultations were more frequent than Mr. Doll believes.”

A fourth witness—Bernard D. Goldstein, dean emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health—said careful study of public health risks before gas drilling takes place is not being seriously considered.

“The public is concerned, and in some cases rightfully angry, concerning the conflicting information it is receiving about two important aspects of unconventional gas drilling,” he told the subcommittee. “It is hearing from industry and the government that an exciting new technology permits obtaining gas from deep underground shale formations. But we are also told that this has been around for decades so there is nothing to worry about. It can’t be both.”

Goldstein said statements that no water contamination has resulted from fracing applies only to the technical activity deep underground, but not to the growing public perception that includes above-ground handling, well plugging, and other activities. Studies also should examine mixtures and flowbacks as well as individual fracing chemicals, he suggested.

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