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Here's What the EPA Has to Say About Water Contamination From Fracking

Environmentalists and energy companies are both pleased with the agency's latest report on the controversial drilling technique.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

A major report from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on fracking has both environmentalists and industry representatives claiming a win in the debate over the health and safety impacts of the oil and natural gas drilling technique.

In the draft report, released on Thursday, the agency outlines the many ways in which fracking threatens surface and ground water supplies, including chemical spills, waste water disposal, and gases seeping from wells.


The EPA concludes that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts" on the country's drinking water.

"It certainly undermines what anti-fracking groups have been saying for years," Katie Brown, a spokesperson for Energy In Depth, the public relations arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told VICE News. "They were saying fracking was polluting groundwater all over the country. This report shows that is not true."

But environmentalists dispute the industry's assessment. They point out that agency highlighted numerous cases where fracking operations did contaminate water supplies, including a production well rupture that leaked fracking chemicals into two water wells in Killdeer, North Dakota. And, in northeastern Pennsylvania, the EPA found that up to nine of the area's 36 drinking water wells were tainted with methane and ethane from fracking facilities close by.

"We're excited that the EPA has finally acknowledged what we've known for quite a while, which is that fracking does contaminate water," Deb Nardone of the Sierra Club told VICE News.

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More than 8.6 million people, about 3 percent of the US population, rely on one of the 6,800 drinking water sources located within a mile of a fracking well, according to the report. Thousands of new wells are drilled every year.


But oil and gas companies are often secretive about their activities, said Gretchen Goldman, a policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. That makes it difficult for local governments and federal agencies like the EPA to track where the process is happening and what effects it might be having on water quality.

"The information that we have about how companies are operating and how this is working in different places is very disparate and inconsistent between states," Goldman told VICE News.

The EPA noted that it had difficulty accessing information on fracking and that there is a lack of data on the technique's long-term effects. It also found that the number of cases where fracking had contaminated drinking water was "small" when compared to the tens of thousands of wells — but that may be because of a lack of data.

"They of course didn't go through and do this really comprehensive assessment of lots of wells," Goldman told VICE News. "I do sort of wonder what level of confidence they have on that statistic."

Related: These states are telling locals not to get in the way of fracking

Laura Allen, deputy press secretary for the EPA, declined to specify how many cases it identified where fracking had impacted water sources.

"The purpose of the study was not to count every instance of impacts to drinking water resources," Allen told VICE News. "The purpose was to follow the water and to better understand the potential vulnerabilities."


Though the EPA hasn't provided a comprehensive examination, there is evidence that the number could be significant. In August, an Associated Press investigation revealed that drilling in Pennsylvania contaminated drinking wells 243 times in six years. And in 2013, the advocacy group Environment America found that leaks and spills from drilling in Colorado polluted groundwater 340 times over a five-year period.

Improved access to information could help local and state governments better regulate the industry, Goldman said.

"It's all about this question of: 'Is this a risk we want to take?'" Goldman told VICE News. "Communities will decide to do it or not based on a variety of factors, but they should be able to make that decision with accurate information of what those risks are. I really hope the EPA continues on this and doesn't consider this a done deal."

Vice: Why won't our 'environmental president' stop fracking on public land?

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro