EPA Backpedals on Pavillion Fracking Contamination

In a U.S. House subcommittee hearing yesterday, EPA Regional Administrator James Martin backed off EPA’s previous stance that fracking causes groundwater contamination—at least not anywhere outside of Pavillion, Wyoming. You may recall the hubbub when the EPA released a preliminary report in December that “theorized” hydraulic fracturing in the Pavillion, WY area “may have” caused chemical contamination of “some” water wells in the Pavillion area (see this MDN story).

Drilling supporters quickly pointed out that a) the geology where the drilling occurred around Pavillion is porous sandstone, not tightly-packed shale, b) drilling was around 1,200 feet down, with the water table at 800 feet, far closer than shale gas drilling of a mile down with water tables around 300 feet, c) the two suspect wells where the EPA found chemicals were test wells the EPA themselves drilled, not previously drilled production wells, d) the findings are very preliminary, and have not yet been subjected to outside review.

With Congress now back in session, the EPA was hauled before a House subcommittee and grilled, and during that grilling they backed away from the earlier impression they created that Pavillion is the smoking gun that proves fracking causes chemical contamination:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in no way contends that a draft report on groundwater pollution in Wyoming could apply to hydraulic fracturing in any other part of the U.S., an EPA official told a U.S. House subcommittee.

That includes the Marcellus Shale, a vast area of booming gas drilling in Pennsylvania and other northeastern states, EPA Regional Administrator James Martin said Wednesday.

"The geologic conditions that exist with the Marcellus Shale are significantly different," Martin told the House Science Committee’s energy and environment subcommittee, which held a hearing in Washington on the draft EPA report released Dec. 8.

The report theorized that gas industry activity including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, may have caused groundwater pollution in the Wyoming community of Pavillion.*

But the EPA’s backpedalling doesn’t fool Rep. Ralph Hall (Republican, Texas). He said:

"It is important to recognize what EPA is doing in Wyoming is not isolated. They are going after fracking everywhere they can.”

Anti-drillers are desperate to prove a single connection of groundwater contamination with fracking. They were hoping Pavillion would be the first, and perhaps Dimock, PA would be the second. MDN points out the obvious: Assuming a worst-case scenario (and we don’t yet assume it), that both Pavillion and Dimock have caused groundwater contamination, as tragic as that is, it is still statistically zero out of the millions of fracked wells going back 50 years.

*CBS News/AP (Feb 1, 2012) – Reps. scrutinize EPA frack-pollution link in Wyo.