From Flint to fracking, EPA can learn from its mistakes

As most of us have heard by now, an emergency manager in Flint, Michigan switched water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to cut costs without adding required corrosion controls. The EPA was aware of dangerously high levels of lead in the water supply the following year, but chose to remain silent for months.

The result? Hundreds of Flint children are thought to now have elevated blood-lead levels, which can lead to serious, irreversible damage to the nervous system.

{mosads}To its credit, EPA has finally admitted its mistakes and begun to take responsibility. But Flint is not an isolated example. All too often, the EPA seems to let polluters off the hook.

A striking example is EPA’s report on the drinking water impacts of fracking for oil and natural gas.  In June 2015, EPA released a draft report summarizing the scientific evidence about the frequency and severity of fracking’s impacts on drinking water.  The EPA reviewed evidence of fracking incidents including spills of toxic fracking fluid and chemicals, groundwater contamination, discharges of fracking waste into rivers and streams, and underground migration of fracking chemicals, including methane, into drinking water wells.

The report confirms over 450 specific cases of spills of chemicals and water contamination caused by drilling and fracking-related actions.  The report also identifies the multiple mechanisms by which contamination took place.

Despite these clear findings, the report used language that was misleading and has since been misinterpreted by the media, industry and the public to suggest that fracking is safe and that there is not evidence of harm to our water resources. They summarize the draft report saying that the “assessment shows hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”

Now EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board panel, tasked with reviewing the June draft, has raised highly critical comments about the agency’s representation of its findings. Last month in a public teleconference on the report, scientific, health, and legal experts testified about the shortcomings of the Agency’s study. Numerous organizations, including my own, have submitted letters to the Science Advisory Board, voicing our own disagreement with EPA’s apparent stance.

Is EPA too focused on protecting the fracking industry, rather than the people it is supposed to serve?  Several well-known fracking cases highlight this concern, yet were inexplicably excluded from the June draft report.

In late 2010, EPA issued an emergency order that said at least two homeowners in Parker County, Texas were in immediate danger of having their water contaminated, and required the local drilling company, Range Resources, to provide clean water.  But over a year later the mandate was quietly dropped.   It was later revealed that EPA had scientific evidence indicating that the driller, Range Resources, had caused the water contamination, but the Agency acceded to corporate pressure from the company, choosing to discontinue the investigation rather than see it through.

In a second high-profile case, EPA released in 2011 a draft report suggesting that fracking likely explained pollution of underground sources of drinking water in the Pavillion gas basin in Wyoming, where residents had been complaining about foul water for years. Two years later EPA suddenly dropped the investigation, handing it over to Wyoming state officials, who happened to be pro-fracking.

A similar situation arose in Dimock, Pennsylvania, where EPA cut short its investigation despite strong evidence of water contamination, including multiple cases of exploding drinking water wells. 

The pattern is clear and troubling:  EPA has dropped investigations that seemed likely to lead to the conclusion that fracking causes health and safety hazards.

As health professionals we work to prevent harm to the public’s health.  The public has a right to know the risks associated with fracking in their communities.

For these reasons, we call on the EPA to clearly state in its report the logical conclusion of its own findings:  that specific mechanisms associated with fracking activities place our aquifers and drinking water at increased risk of harm, and that evidence exists of harm already inflicted on drinking water resources, caused directly by fracking and its related activities. 

Then it will be time to turn our attention to protecting affected residents and remediating the chemical contamination that they, like the children of Flint, face in their drinking water and their daily lives.

Gottlieb is director of Environment & Health for Physicians for Social Responsibility.


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