A Congressional subcommittee on Wednesday will question a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others regarding a controversial draft EPA report which concluded that groundwater in Pavillion, WY, contains chemicals that are normally used in natural gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The highly emotional nature of the debate since the report surfaced in December (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2011) was tempered somewhat by the recent release of an independent review by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which observed that EPA "did not appear to conclude that there was a definitive link to a release from the production wells [at Pavillion], nor to the constituents found in the domestic [water] wells in the shallower portion of the aquifer."

While acknowledging that the draft document has raised many issues among potentially affected stakeholders, 11 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have written EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging that the EPA investigation be considered a "highly influential scientific assessment," and any related reports be subject to a "most rigorous, independent and thorough external peer review process."

In the U.S. House on Wednesday the energy and environment subcommittee of the Science, Space and Technology Committee will hear from the EPA, along with its supporters and critics.

The CRS concluded that no matter what actions EPA takes under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), it is not clear what part of the final findings on Pavillion will be applicable to other similar fracking operations. It would depend heavily, the CRS review said, "upon the extent to which the geology and hydrogeology are similar, as well as other site-specific factors."

At the heart of the debate is EPA's discovery of chemicals associated with gas production and fracking fluids inside deepwater wells in the Pavillion region. The major operator in the Pavillion play, Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., a subsidiary of Encana Corp., immediately went on the defensive, asserting that many of the EPA's findings from its recent deep monitoring wells, including those related to any potential connection between fracking and Pavillion groundwater quality, are "conjecture, not factual, and only serve to trigger undue alarm" (see Shale Daily, Dec. 13, 2011).

For its part, the EPA has repeatedly emphasized that the report was not final and it only applies to the gas field being studied.

"The extent to which EPA may revise its findings in response to public comments and the forthcoming external scientific review is unclear and will not be known until the agency finalizes its report," the CRS review said.

The issue dates back several years to 2008 when, at the request of Pavillion residents, the EPA began investigating water quality concerns in private drinking water wells. Since then Wyoming, Pavillion and Encana have joined EPA to assess the water quality and identify potential sources of contamination. After meeting with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, EPA began sampling drinking water wells in 2009; a second sampling took place last year (see Daily GPI, Sept. 3, 2010; Aug. 28, 2009).