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API: USGS Pavillion Results Cast Doubt on EPA Tests

October 22, 2012
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Results from recent U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) water quality testing in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring wells in Pavillion, WY, "raise serious questions about the adequacy of EPA practices in drilling monitoring wells and testing water samples," said Erik Milito, American Petroleum Institute (API) upstream director.

"Unscientific testing could produce flawed results that could result in major adverse impacts on shale energy development and the vast potential it has to contribute to U.S. jobs, U.S. economic recovery and U.S. energy security," Milito said.

Following complaints by some Pavillion residents, EPA conducted water sampling tests and last December issued a draft report that appeared to link water contamination to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) -- a charge disputed by Encana Corp., which is operating in the area, and Wyoming regulatory and elected officials (see NGI, Jan. 2; Dec. 19, 2011; Dec. 12, 2011). The EPA, USGS and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality agreed earlier this year to test and analyze data from two test wells in Pavillion on a joint basis. Last month USGS issued two reports about groundwater samples taken in April and May but provided no new conclusions (see NGI, Oct. 1).

After looking closely at the USGS reports, API concluded that USGS "did a better job" than EPA, Milito said. USGS did not test samples from one of the two wells that EPA drilled "because that well was unable to provide representative samples due to its low-flow characteristics," he said, and samples from the well that USGS did test did not contain several compounds of interest previously identified by EPA.

"In addition, while EPA has yet to acknowledge this, hydrocarbons are naturally occurring and have historically been detected in groundwater in the Pavillion area," Milito said. "It is not unexpected to find hydrocarbons in groundwater in a hydrocarbon-bearing formation.

"The USGS findings also raise questions about the adequacy of the monitoring wells EPA constructed and possible misrepresentation of well depths. Poorly constructed wells and poor sampling procedures could cause cross-contamination in the samples. EPA did not follow a transparent, peer-reviewed process that might have helped guide the agency in the use of proven and tested scientific practices."

While the USGS testing "raised the bar for sound science in the EPA's Pavillion research," there are still several technical issues that require review by USGS, EPA and the scientific community, according to API's review.

Encana officials have said the USGS testing provided "a good comparison and is a good reality check" on the EPA's assertion that USGS results support its own earlier testing (see NGI, Oct. 8). "EPA has provided no sound scientific evidence that drilling has impacted domestic drinking water wells in the area," Encana spokesman Doug Hock told NGI. "No oil and gas constituent exceeded drinking water standards in any of the data for the domestic wells.

"As we've noted previously, the presence of some hydrocarbons in the EPA monitoring wells is to be expected as these wells were drilled into a gas zone. Encana didn't put the hydrocarbons there; nature did." And EPA failed to follow standard protocols for well construction and testing at one of the Pavillion wells, Hock said.

API isn't calling on EPA to end its study, Milito said; it is calling on EPA to do it right.

"The Pavillion analysis is critically important because EPA, as part of its separate nationwide study into potential drinking water impacts, is also drilling monitoring wells and collecting and analyzing samples in other places," Milito said. "If EPA thinks its investigation at Pavillion has produced scientifically useful information, then it may proceed in the same inexpert way at other testing sites, assume it is getting additional useful information, and employ that information to justify changes in public policy."

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead has said that even with more cooperation between state and federal officials in the testing of ground water in Pavillion, unilateral actions by the U.S. EPA are raising concerns. "It is an important enough issue to Wyoming and the rest of the country that early conclusions need to be avoided, and we need to wait until the scientists tell me what they think," Mead said.

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