How the Wheels Fell off the EPA's Fracking Study

When real people tell the stories of how fracking has impacted their lives and the lives of their families and communities, the wheels begin to fall off the narrative that has insulated the gas-drilling industry from accountability. (Photo: Food & Water Watch)

How the Wheels Fell off the EPA's Fracking Study

Five harmed but unsilenced residents of Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Texas showed up at last week’s EPA fracking study review panel, and they completely flipped the script.

In June, the Obama Administration released the Environmental Protection Agency's study on fracking and its impact on drinking water. After more than five years of study, the agency released it to the public under this misleading banner:

"Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources." (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). [Press release]. "EPA Releases Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities." June 4, 2015.)

The media ran with the lede. Having cut down the concerns about drinking water resources as "not widespread," the fracking industry, its financiers and a legion of lobbyists thought they had closed the deal.

They thought the path was paved for widespread, systematic fracking to maximize the amounts of oil and gas that can be brought to the surface to be burned. But last week, over three marathon days of public testimony on and peer-review of the study, the wheels fell off.

The EPA's Scientific Advisory Board review panel -- a group of scientists, engineers and industry representatives -- converged on the landmark retro-chic Washington Plaza Hotel for the meetings. On short notice, and to the surprise of EPA and the assembled panel, residents of Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Texas who have refused to be silenced by the industry also showed up, putting names and faces to the thousands of people harmed by fracking.

One by one, Ray Kemble and Craig Stevens from Dimock, Pennsylvania, Ron Gulla from Hickory, Pennsylvania, John Fenton from Pavillion, Wyoming and Steve Lipsky from Parker County, Texas told their stories. Each was forced to condense five to ten years of anguish over the industry's rapaciousness and over their government's neglect into just five minutes.

The EPA had long abandoned its investigations in Dimock, Pavillion and Parker County, Texas, leaving the communities with contaminated water. And inexplicably, the EPA had excluded their "high-profile" cases of contamination from the assessment. One by one they demanded that the EPA include the truth about what happened in their communities in the assessment.

Their testimonies struck a chord with the panelists. And this chord resonated with the absurdity of the Administration's topline claim that the impacts are not "widespread, systemic."

One after another, the scientists, engineers and even some of the industry representatives took issue with the Obama EPA's finding. The panelists saw that "widespread, systemic" was a meaningless phrase. They emphasized the "local" and "severe" impacts that were outlined in the study and that were recounted in the public testimonies by Kemble, Stevens, Gulla, Fenton and Lipsky. And one after another, the panelists noted how the study was plagued at every turn by "uncertainties and data limitations."

In a cathartic moment, toward the end of the second day, one of the panelists offered up a rewrite of the study's major findings that captured all of these sentiments, and the panelists erupted in applause. It is safe to say the Obama Administration was not expecting rapturous applause from the panel in support of turning the top line finding on its head.

The panelists are also recommending that, at the very least, the EPA provide explicit summaries of what happened in Dimock, Pavillion, and Parker County. That is a far cry from re-opening the investigations, as we and our allies have urged the agency to do. We will continue to push the agency to stop avoiding these cases of contamination, and for Administrator McCarthy to meet with those affected.

Kemble, Stevens, Gulla, Fenton and Lipsky went home with their pride, knowing they struck a chord and that they utterly changed the tenor of the peer-review process last week and exposed the assessment as an embarrassment, but that won't give them back the years they've lost fighting the industry and losing faith in their government.

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