Earlier this month when the EPA released its Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities, several major media outlets plus the oil & gas industry jumped on this EPA statement: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
As a result the headlines read: “No widespread impacts on drinking water from fracking.”
However last March, Greenpeace had exposed documents obtained via open records that revealed plenty of collusion on the part of industry and the EPA to rig the study.
Noted geochemist Dr. Geoffrey Thyne is a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board which is a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. We know Dr. Thyne around these parts as the guy who confirmed the results of the Mamm Creek Phase III study in 2014 (diminishing benzene contamination, no need for further monitoring). OBTW, the Mamm Creek study didn’t make it into the EPA study no matter how hard we tried. Anyway, Dr. Thyne was more critical in his assessment of the EPA study. He has gone public with some of his views.
From Inside Climate News, 3/2/15:
“We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago,” said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board, a group of independent scientists who reviewed the draft plan of the study. “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”
From Boulder Weekly, 6/11/15 [emphasis added]:
“The fundamental question that was driving [the study] was: Could hydraulic fracturing be a concern to drinking water quality?” Thyne says.
“[The study] does not have data from sites before, during and after actual fracking operations and everything else aside, there’s probably lots of good work in there, but that was the question the study was supposed to answer,” Thyne says. “If you don’t have that data you can’t answer that question” …
… Thyne says when industry’s involved, studies rarely find serious problems.
“Everybody’s got a vested interest,” he says. “It’s difficult for industry to step aside and let the science be purely driven by the EPA. I think you could easily come back and say the EPA’s got a vested interest. And that’s true — they do. In theory their agenda is to protect the general population from anything bad that’s gonna happen. Industry’s is to make money.”
Thyne says look to academia where dozens of studies, including those from Duke University, Stanford University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Arlington, have been conducted without industry provided data or funding.
“Instead of the EPA leading the way, we’re watching the academic community lead the way,” Thyne says. “Doing studies without getting permission from industry, providing information that is not always ‘there’s no problem’.”
Evidently Dr. Thyne knew something we didn’t. Less than a week after those comments above appeared in print, the University of Texas at Arlington published an independent, peer-reviewed study that contradicts those wishy-washy assessments made in the EPA study.
On June 16, A Comprehensive Analysis of Groundwater Quality in the Barnett Shale Region was published in Environmental Science & Technology.
According to the authors’ Abstract:
The exploration of unconventional shale energy reserves and the extensive use of hydraulic fracturing during well stimulation have raised concerns about the potential effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOG) on the environment. Most accounts of groundwater contamination have focused primarily on the compositional analysis of dissolved gases to address whether UOG activities have had deleterious effects on overlying aquifers. Here, we present an analysis of 550 groundwater samples collected from private and public supply water wells drawing from aquifers overlying the Barnett shale formation of Texas. We detected multiple volatile organic carbon compounds throughout the region, including various alcohols, the BTEX family of compounds, and several chlorinated compounds. These data do not necessarily identify UOG activities as the source of contamination; however, they do provide a strong impetus for further monitoring and analysis of groundwater quality in this region as many of the compounds we detected are known to be associated with UOG techniques.
The Texas study was the result of collaboration between the University of Texas Arlington and Inform Environmental LLC. Researchers sampled 550 wells in the Barnett Shale area in proximity to unconventional oil and gas wells (fracking), making this one of the largest independent analyses of water quality in aquifers near fracking sites.
In 381 of the wells the study found BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) that are not naturally occurring and are commonly found in fracking fluid and produced water. Thirty-four of those wells were polluted by benzene, a known carcinogen.
Ethanol was found 240 wells and methanol in 35 wells. Methanol and ethanol are common anti-corrosive, gelling agents used in fracking About 90% percent of the wells contaminated with methanol and ethanol were located in counties with heavy fracking activity.
An industrial solvent called dichloromethane, or DCM, was also found in 121 samples, or more than 20% of the wells. DCM is a common degreasing agent used in fracking. Dominic DiGiulio, a former EPA water scientist now affiliated with Stanford University, called the presence of DCM in water wells “alarming.”
“I would definitely be concerned if I were one of the domestic well owners here. I wouldn’t be consuming the water or showering with it,” DiGiulio said.
DiGiulio added that state and federal authorities should conduct further investigations of the water wells sampled in the Texas study.
While the Abstract does state, “These data do not necessarily identify UOG activities as the source of contamination,” the study’s lead author Zacariah Hildenbrand says there is a correlation between greater unconventional oil and gas development and the presence of the contaminants.
“In the counties where there is more unconventional oil and gas development, the chemicals are worse,” said Hildenbrand. “They’re in water in higher concentrations and more prevalent among the wells. As you get away from the drilling, water quality gets better. There’s no doubt about it.”
Water wells in the Silverado subdivision in Parker County were included in the Texas study and found to be contaminated. The EPA had started testing those wells 5 years ago but in 2012, with the aid of the Justice Department put an end to legal action by homeowners and shelved the investigation. Like the Mamm Creek study, the Parker County study was not included the EPA study.
Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel said, “This study suggests the Environmental Protection Agency is taking a ‘see no evil’ approach to fracking water pollution. The University of Texas, working independent of the oil and gas industry, found evidence of widespread groundwater pollution connected to fracking. The EPA, working for years with the oil and gas industry to study the same issue, managed not to find that evidence in its study released earlier this month. Perhaps that’s because President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy policy requires favoring oil and gas over the clean, renewable energy our communities and water really need.”
On the same day the Texas study was released, the City of Denton, Texas was forced to repeal its ordinance enacting the fracking ban passed in November by ballot initiative. HB40, signed into law by Governor Abbott in May, effectively removed Texas communities’ long-standing right to govern oil and gas development, leaving state regulators solely responsible for protecting the public.
In a statement the next day Earthworks Texas Organizer Sharon Wilson said, “Fracking water pollution isn’t a surprise to people living with fracking. But it must be a surprise to Texas regulators, who claim to have never found any. Denton was forced to repeal its ban last night. Now Denton and all Texas communities are in the hands of state government, which seems bound and determined to protect the oil and gas industry, not the public. What this study really shows is why communities must have local control to protect their own health and safety.”