EPA: Fracking not causing major harm to drinking water

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Hydraulic fracturing has not caused any major harm to drinking water supplies, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded Thursday.

In what the EPA is calling the most comprehensive examination of existing data and science on the impact the controversial oil and natural gas drilling technique has on drinking water, it largely debunked concerns about extensive contamination of well water or other sources.

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And while the draft report released Thursday is largely a win for industry, which has said for years that fracking is completely safe, the EPA recognized some “potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water.”

“EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources,” Thomas A. Burke, an EPA science adviser and top official in its research office, said in a statement.

“It is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports,” he said.

Fracking is the main force behind the oil and gas renaissance seen in recent years in the United States, leading it to become the top gas producer in the world and putting it on a course to top oil producer.

The process involves injecting water and chemical additives into wells at high pressure to break shale rock and unleash additional oil or gas.

The main conclusion of the nearly 1,000-page report is the researchers did not find that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”

But it nonetheless outlined situations in which problems could occur, like when the fracking goes directly into formations that hold drinking water resources, wells are not adequately constructed or wastewater is not treated appropriately before being discharged into areas where drinking water is drawn.

The industry took the report as a major victory.

“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known,” Erik Milito, director of upstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

“Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices,” he said.

The report will become final after the EPA’s Science Advisory Board approves it, and it goes through a public comment period.

Green groups have long complained that fracking pollutes groundwater, drinking water and the air, among other problems. They point to research from Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico showing hundreds of instances of water pollution from the practice.

On Thursday, environmentalists focused on the EPA’s conclusions on possible drinking water harms, saying the study proves their arguments.

“The EPA's water quality study confirms what millions of Americans already know — that dirty oil and gas fracking contaminates drinking water,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement.

The group also called out the EPA for the limitations on its study and called for more thorough research.

“Unfortunately, the EPA chose to leave many critical questions unanswered,” Brune continued. “For example, the study did not look at this issue under the lens of public health and ignored numerous threats that fracking poses to drinking water.”

The EPA acknowledged numerous limitations to its research, including insufficient data and other sources of water pollution.