EPA now says fracking can affect water resources

fracking rig in Colorado
Fracked nation. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

In what is probably one of the EPA’s final moves before the Trump era starts, the agency this week released a new study showing how fracking can affect drinking water. There’s nothing in the report that wasn’t already known to scientists, water managers and health experts, but the fact that the EPA finally acknowledged the potential impacts is important, according to environmental advocates.

As part of the report, EPA identified conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe, including:

  • Water withdrawals for hydraulic fracturing in times or areas of low water availability, particularly in areas with limited or declining groundwater resources;
  • Spills during the management of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water that result in large volumes or high concentrations of chemicals reaching groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity, allowing gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources;
  • Injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids directly into groundwater resources;
  • Discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and
  • Disposal or storage of hydraulic fracturing wastewater in unlined pits, resulting in contamination of groundwater resources.

The report also identifies uncertainties and data gaps. These uncertainties and data gaps limited EPA’s ability to fully assess impacts to drinking water resources both locally and nationally. These final conclusions are based upon review of over 1,200 cited scientific sources; feedback from an independent peer review conducted by EPA’s Science Advisory Board; input from engaged stakeholders; and new research conducted as part of the study.

“The value of high quality science has never been more important in helping to guide decisions around our nation’s fragile water resources. EPA’s assessment provides the scientific foundation for local decision makers, industry, and communities that are looking to protect public health and drinking water resources and make more informed decisions about hydraulic fracturing activities,” EPA science advisor Thomas A. Burke said in a press release. “This assessment is the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing.”

The report is organized around activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle and their potential to impact drinking water resources. The stages include:

  • acquiring water to be used for hydraulic fracturing (Water Acquisition),
  • mixing the water with chemical additives to make hydraulic fracturing fluids (Chemical Mixing),
  • injecting hydraulic fracturing fluids into the production well to create and grow fractures in the targeted production zone (Well Injection),
  • collecting the wastewater that returns through the well after injection (Produced Water Handling), and,
  • managing the wastewater through disposal or reuse methods (Wastewater Disposal and Reuse).

The agency said that information gaps remain because, in some cases,  needed data isn’t collected, isn’t available publicly or difficult to aggregate.

In places where the agency knows activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle have occurred, data that could be used to characterize hydraulic fracturing-related chemicals in the environment before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing were scarce.

“Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, as well as others described in the assessment, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle,” the EPA wrote in a press release. Read the study here: www.epa.gov/hfstudy.

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