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Fracking Stinks

We may finally get some answers. ProPublica reported yesterday that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluids for oil and gas drilling have been found in drinking water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, an area of intense natural gas drilling. The investigation is based on complaints going back as far as 15 years by residents claiming that their wells began showing signs of contamination not long after natural gas drilling began in the area.

In 2005, hydraulic fracturing was exempted from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act based largely on a widely criticized EPA literature review that found the process to be safe. In 2002 when the House was investigating fracking, EPA sent Congress conflicting and altered data based on “feedback” from “industry sources“. This prompted ranking minority member, Henry Waxman to send a letter to EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman asking for an explanation from EPA staff of why the data were changed. Waxman said “I would like and explantion of why your October 3 letter says that there was no alteration of data and no discussion by Agency staff with industry sources when EPA’s own September 18 document expressly says contrary“. Just coincidentally, the former CEO of Halliburton Co., the company that invented the fracking process and one of it’s largest beneficiaries, happened to be Vice President when the exemption was granted.

Since EPA has no authority under the SDWA to investigate fracking, they have not done any of their own sampling up to this point. The Wyoming study is being undertaken using the authority of the EPA Superfund program which gives the agency needed powers to investigate the complaints. Companies claim that the specific chemicals used in their fracking fluids are trade secrets and they are not required to reveal what they are pumping into the ground. This makes it much harder for EPA and other agencies to test groundwater for contamination because they don’t know what to test for.

“‘How in god’s name can the oil industry dump sh*t in our drinking water and not tell us what it is?” shouted Alan Hofer, who lives near the center of the sites being investigated by the EPA“. 30-40% of fracking fluids remain in the ground after drilling is finished.

If they’d tell us what they were using then you could go out and test for things and it would make it a lot easier, right?” asked Jim Van Dorn, who represents Wyoming Rural Water, a nonprofit that advises utilities and private well owners on water management. “Exactly,” said Luke Chavez, the EPA’s chief Superfund investigator on the project. “That’s our idea too.”

There are currently two bills moving through Congress, if moving is the right word, that address the SDWA exemption for hydraulic fracturing. H.R. 2766 was introduced in the House by Diana DeGette, D-CO and S. 1215, basically the same bill, introduced in the Senate by Bob Casey, D-PA. Both bills were introduced on June 9 and referred to committee. Funny thing about bills that are opposed by large industries, they get sent deep into committee rooms and never see the light of day after that. The House Energy and Commerce committee is composed to 59 members and they are looking at 867 bills. A majority of bills never make it out of committee. Both of these bills have some very large campaign donor opponents. We’ll see.

The oil and gas industry has mounted a concentrated attack on both bills arguing that there is no need for further regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The arguments are tried and true. Fracking is already sufficiently regulated by states: Only four states require specific approval for fracking. Most states use existing regulations for anything that is pumped into the ground and requirements for protecting groundwater vary widely from state to state. They also say, complying with more paperwork will drive the oil and gas industry out of business, thousands will loose their jobs, industries will move overseas… You’ve heard it before.

The industry claims that the process is safe and has been used for 50 years with no reports of pollution. Horse Hockey! See many examples on ProPublica and elsewhere, or several Button Valley Bugle articles on the subject and now you can follow the project in Wyoming for specific answers. EPA is working with area health departments, a toxicologist and a representative from the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to assess health risks. The investigation continues until next spring.

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