EPA frack study results: no widespread impact on drinking water

By Luke Geiver | June 10, 2015

The U.S. EPA’s recently released draft assessment on the potential impacts to drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing activities is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including more than 950 sources. The assessment, performed at the request of the Congress, has found that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.

The assessment, first commissioned in 2011, analyzed five main activity areas associated with the fracking process: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water and wastewater treatment and waste disposal.

According to the EPA assessment, the potential for fracking-related impacts on above- and below-ground water resources exists, but the EPA did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread impacts on drinking water in the U.S. “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells,” EPA said.

“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by the EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known,” Erik Milito, American Petroleum Institute upstream group director said. “Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices.”

Some of the water vulnerabilities identified by the EPA were not unique to hydraulic fracturing, the assessment noted. The list of main fracking-related vulnerabilities includes water withdrawals in areas with low water availability, fracking directly into formations containing drinking water resources, inadequately cased or cemented wells, inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources and spills of frack-related fluids.

“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,” said Thomas Burke, science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s office of research and development.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said that the study confirms what those in the state have believed all along. “We in North Dakota have been regulating hydraulic fracturing effectively for years with good environmental stewardship and we are now the second largest oil producing state in the nation. This report comes as good news for residents of oil producing lands in our state and across the country,” Hoeven said.

Others did not agree with the positive elements of the assessment highlighted by API and Hoeven. Earthworks, a group formed from two other groups that were started in 1988 and 1999, said the study confirmed that communities living near fracking have known for years that fracking pollutes drinking water.

A U.S. Geological Survey study focused on groundwater in the Williston Basin released last year found that oil and gas developments in North Dakota and Montana have not impacted shallow groundwater quality.

In North Dakota, produced and flowback water is injected into the Dakota formation within the Williston Basin. The formation lies several thousand feet above the Bakken formation where fracking activity occurs. The North Dakota Industrial Commission also requires a saltwater disposal well to avoid any freshwater aquifer by at least a quarter mile, or 1,320 feet.

The EPA studied a well blowout near Killdeer, North Dakota in 2010 to aid in its efforts to understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. Drinking water wells sampled in the area of the blowout did not show the presence of chemicals or bring associated with the blowout, EPA found.

To view an executive summary of the EPA’s assessment, click here:

The EPA has not provided a date when the study will be complete, but it will be finalized after review of the Science Advisory Board. 

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