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EPA now concedes fracking is a hazard to drinking water

EPA now concedes fracking is a hazard to drinking water

After a year-long review of the data, the EPA has concluded that fracking poses a systemic danger to clean groundwater. But it’s not solely inherent to the technology of fracking itself. Human handling is a big part of the problem.

Last year, in response to a 2011 probe, the agency sought review on an initial report on the hazards posed by fracking, but reviewers found the report incomplete. External reviewers weren’t satisfied with the data, and requested a review of the sample size and justifications for the safety conclusions originally drawn. Then, in early 2016, the staid and not exactly controversial United States Geological Survey released a report concluding that fracking had caused a rash of recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas. Until 2008, Dallas had never had an earthquake. But it sits atop the Barnett Shale, second only to the Marcellus Shale in size and importance. Since 2008, they’ve had more than 200 quakes. Oklahoma had more quakes than California in 2014. In response to that report, Oklahoma ordered the shutdown of dozens of wells, and they’ve had a little relief.

The final version of the EPA report, just released, is much more conservative in its approval than the first, which said it found “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates water supplies.” They took out that line from this version.

This version takes a different tone than the original. The draft version of the report qualified its acknowledgement of fracking contamination by saying that such incidents had been “rare” among the sites in the data set. Rather than making that comparison, the final version just rolls out a list of risk factors for negative side effects of fracking. It’s not a question of whether or not contamination happens as a matter of course anymore. The EPA straight up listed known patterns of contamination. In their words:

As part of the report, EPA identified certain conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe, including:

  • Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
  • Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
  • Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
  • Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.

It has to be said that if we’d do our damn homework and treat this like it matters, we might could do fracking without destroying the groundwater. Maybe not everywhere; there may be areas where the rock formations are just wrong, too porous and saturated, and you can’t frack there without screwing up the water. We would know where those places are, if the area had been adequately explored to make a decision on whether to frack there.

There’s an argument, however thin, that there’s a limit of diminishing return on exploration of the underground: Too much money spent on exploration means there’s none left for exploiting known resources. But is there ever any excuse for dumping the fracking fluids straight a body of surface water or into an unlined dry well? There’s a concept called “downstream,” guys. What’s downstream matters.

The hard fact is that we’re not going to be conducting the Platonic ideal of fracking, out there in the field, with overworked, underpaid, probably unconcerned techs from the lowest-bidding extraction outfit. Sure, if nothing goes wrong, you can do fracking without contaminating the water. But fracking sites are not like an aerospace clean room, where fretful engineers with anti-static straps and booties fiddle with tweezers until they get a seal just exactly perfectly seated. They’re in the middle of oil fields, or on someone’s back 40 where they had to build their own road just to get out to the site. The process of fracking has a lot of points where things can go wrong.

All those moratoria on fracking “until the evidence comes in” should be taking this report into account. The evidence is in. Fracking poses systemic hazards to the environment.

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