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Thursday, September 29, 2016

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

When the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly retreated on its multimillion-dollar investigation into water contamination in a central Wyoming natural gas field last month, it shocked environmentalists and energy industry supporters alike.

In 2011, the agency had issued a blockbuster draft report saying that the controversial practice of fracking was to blame for the pollution of an aquifer deep below the town of Pavillion, WY– the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis.

The study drew heated criticism over its methodology and awaited a peer review that promised to settle the dispute. Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.

Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:

—Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, PA, saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.

—Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, TX, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.

—Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.

—Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.

“We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.”

The EPA says that the string of decisions is not related, and the Pavillion matter will be resolved more quickly by state officials. The agency has maintained publicly that it remains committed to an ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing, which it says will draw the definitive line on fracking’s risks to water.

In private conversations, however, high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill — as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House — is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well.

Last year, the agency’s budget was sliced 17 percent, to below-1998 levels. Sequestration forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion harder to fund.

One reflection of the intense political spotlight on the agency: In May, Senate Republicans boycotted a vote on President Obama’s nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, after asking her to answer more than 1,000 questions on regulatory and policy concerns, including energy.

The Pavillion study touched a particular nerve for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the former ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

According to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Inhofe demanded repeated briefings from EPA officials on fracking initiatives and barraged the agency with questions on its expenditures in Pavillion, down to how many dollars it paid a lab to check water samples for a particular contaminant.

He also wrote a letter to the EPA’s top administrator calling a draft report that concluded fracking likely helped pollute Pavillion’s drinking water “unsubstantiated” and pillorying it as part of an “administration-wide effort to hinder and unnecessarily regulate hydraulic fracturing on the federal level.” He called for the EPA’s inspector general to open an investigation into the agency’s actions related to fracking.

When the EPA announced it would end its research in Pavillion, Inhofe — whose office did not respond to questions from ProPublica — was quick to applaud.

“EPA thought it had a rock-solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, WY, but we knew all along that the science was not there,” Inhofe said in a press release issued the day of the announcement.

Others, however, wonder whether a gun-shy EPA is capable of answering the pressing question of whether the nation’s natural gas boom will also bring a wave of environmental harm.

“The EPA has just put a ‘kick me’ sign on it,” John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog in response to the EPA news about Pavillion. “Its critics from all quarters will now oblige.”

**

Before fracking became the subject of a high-stakes national debate, federal agencies appeared to be moving aggressively to study whether the drilling technique was connected to mounting complaints of water pollution and health problems near well sites nationwide.

As some states began to strengthen regulations for fracking, the federal government prepared to issue rules for how wells would be fracked on lands it directly controlled.

The EPA also launched prominent scientific studies in Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, stepping into each case after residents voiced concerns that state environmental agencies had not properly examined problems.

The EPA probe in Pavillion began in 2008 with the aim of determining whether the town’s water was safe to drink. The area was first drilled in 1960 and had been the site of extensive natural gas development since the 1990s. Starting at about the same time, residents had complained of physical ailments and said their drinking water was black and tasted of chemicals.

The EPA conducted four rounds of sampling, first testing the water from more than 40 homes and later drilling two deep wells to test water from layers of earth that chemicals from farming and old oil and gas waste pits were unlikely to reach.

  • sigrid28

    No one wants to believe the EPA is in the pocket of the fossil fuel felons–which is why the NM does such a great public service in allotting space in its pages for in-depth coverage like Lustgarten’s report. To make his case, that this incredible collusion exists, requires facts and examples, which are ample and have in fact been pared down here to fit into the Propublica/National Memo formats. If we could stand it, we could flesh out this case with several hundred pages of research covering just the recent data–and even if that, too, were before us, we would still–perhaps–not want to believe. We don’t want to believe, because if what he says is true, our government has capitulated completely to the big money interests funding political elections in this country. We don’t want to believe, because if what he says is true, our entire water supply isn’t really safe anywhere. How can those who have profited from the fuel industry risk endangering even their own water supply? Do they really think that their wealth insulates them so well that they will not be affected by environmental fall-out from their haphazard drilling methods and faulty fuel transport systems? I invite them to ferry between the Greek islands with me–backpacks and all–in the summer of 1980, stand on the crowded second-class deck with the rest of us and watch merchant ships slowly pulling along huge gray plastic blimps three times their size across the surface of the ocean, towing fresh water to thirsty tourists outnumbering the villagers on the endangered Greek islands. Even in 1980 fresh fish is a luxury in the cafes on the waterfront. We’re eating regional cuisine made from herds of goats that amble about the broken statuary of bygone civilizations that were scattered everywhere you looked on the overcrowded islands in 1980. How soon will we add our rubble to these bygone eras piled one upon the other?

    • LauraNo

      They are so rich they can’t think straight, or something. It’s like giving children access to all the candy in the world – they would never stop eating it until they were forced to.

  • m8lsem

    “Last year, the agency’s budget was sliced 17 percent, to below-1998 levels. Sequestration forced further cuts, making research initiatives like the one in Pavillion harder to fund.”

    In short, EPA is in a Republican-caused jam for money, and has to re-prioritize its entire workload from start to finish, with fewer people and less money. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Slope, from the tip of Maine to Hawaii …

    Scream at your Congressman, not the agency.

  • LauraNo

    The oligarchs (pharma) have captured the FDA and CDC, the Farm Aid (agra), the banks, the NSA, the FBI (charging environmentalists as terrorists), oil corp oligarchs (the most profit by an industry, EVER! paying zero tax and COLLECTING SUBSIDIES!) on and on. We the people have no say in our government anymore, it’s just a thinly veiled illusion that we have democracy. I blame Republicans and Conservatives since at least Reagan but maybe it was inevitable and they just hurried things up.

  • Mark Forsyth

    It is so reassuring to know that the EPA has not abandoned the use of science while it is formulating its statement regarding fracking caused water contamination.They have been bought and sold in the market place,folks. Bridge For Sale,Bridge For Sale,Cheap Cheap, Cheep,cheep,che.

  • herchato

    Big business has always tried to control government and it seems they’re finally getting pretty good at it. As long as most of the money continues to flow to the top 1 percent they will continue to get better.