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EPA Science Panel Fine Tunes Concerns Over Fracking, Drinking Water Study

For the second time in less than six weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) has released a draft report that tweaks its landmark assessment last year that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) poses no "widespread, systemic impacts" to drinking water.

On Tuesday, the SAB released a 153-page draft review of EPA's "Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources," which the agency published last June (see Shale DailyJune 4, 2015). The board released a previous draft review over the fracking assessment on Jan. 7 (see Shale DailyJan. 8).

"In general, the SAB finds the EPA's overall approach to assess the potential impacts of [fracking] for oil and gas production on drinking water resources...to be appropriate and comprehensive," the SAB told EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in the draft review's introduction. "However, the SAB has concerns regarding various aspects of the draft assessment report and has several recommendations for changes to its text and follow-on activities to address gaps that the SAB has identified."

Specifically, the SAB said it was concerned that the EPA had planned to conduct "various assessment, field studies and other research," but did not do so. The board also said it was concerned that the EPA made conclusions about the impact of fracking on drinking water on a national scope, but the findings were "ambiguous and appear inconsistent" with the data contained in the assessment.

"The draft assessment report should make clear that the [fracking] industry is rapidly evolving with changes in the processes being employed, whereas the assessment necessarily was developed with the data available at a point in time," the SAB said.

The board also urged the EPA to incorporate any available findings from the agency and state regulators over drinking water impacts in Dimock, PA; Pavillion, WY; and Parker County, TX. "Examination of these high-visibility cases is important so that the public can understand the status of investigations in these areas, conclusions associated with the investigations, [and] lessons learned, if any, for the different stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle [HFWC]..."

The SAB also recommended that the EPA make its assessment accessible to a broader audience and explain the rationale behind using a one-mile radius to define proximity to drinking water sources. The board also suggested that the EPA describe the risks associated with the various stages of HFWC and the best practices being used by the oil and gas industry, as well as compile toxicological information on the chemicals used in fracking.

Energy In Depth (EID) spokeswoman Katie Brown said the latest draft review by the SAB reaffirms the EPA's findings that fracking poses no threat to groundwater. EID is an industry-backed shale gas education group.

"In other words, the SAB is saying the finding stands, but that EPA should provide more numbers in its executive summary to support that finding," Brown said Wednesday. "Whether it's the first or second draft, there is nothing in SAB's recommendations to suggest that EPA's finding of no 'widespread, systemic' groundwater impacts from hydraulic fracturing is incorrect. That's because hydraulic fracturing has not caused widespread impacts on groundwater."

But environmentalists also embraced the SAB's latest draft review.

"We are confident that this tension between [the EPA and the SAB] is a direct consequence of political considerations trumping scientific evidence on fracking," Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter wrote in a blog post on the website EcoWatch on Tuesday. "It is encouraging to see the SAB once again highlighting concern with what was clearly a mistitled and misleading draft report...on fracking and drinking water."

The SAB is scheduled to continue a series of public meetings on the EPA's draft assessment into March.

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