The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's review of fracking's threats to water quality was met with exaltation from the oil industry for this principal finding: "We did not find evidence that [fracking has] led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."
Of course, this conclusion runs counter to growing evidence. The fact is, dirty drilling has caused documented, widespread water contamination across the country.
Some recent examples: a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found fracking chemicals in nearby drinking water wells. Another recent report on peer-reviewed studies found that 72 percent of them showed "indication of potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination." And Duke University researchers found elevated and sometimes dangerous levels of methane in drinking water wells near fracking operations.
Evidence of fracking's harms isn't limited to independent scientific studies. State regulators in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Mexico alone have documented more than 1,000 cases of surface and groundwater contamination linked to fracking and other oil and gas development.
The scientific case against fracking has mounted despite industry secrecy and a lack of baseline data--an assessment of what chemicals existed prior to fracking. When Congress first requested the EPA study in 2010, there was hope it could overcome the major hurdles of industry obstruction and dearth of preliminary data.
But as Inside Climate News has detailed, over the course of nearly five years, the industry and Congress succeeded in watering down the study by limiting its scope. For example, one of the companies that had initially agreed to baseline testing, Chesapeake Energy, lobbied the EPA to limit when and where they could test, documents show.
And despite the study's attempt to assess fracking from start to finish -- from transporting water, to mixing it with chemicals, to treating dangerous wastewater - it fails to examine how underground injection of wastewater containing toxic and even cancer-causing chemicals threatens our rivers, streams and drinking water.
To its credit, EPA acknowledges treatment of toxic wastewater as a "vulnerability" of fracking. That's included in a long list of others: the strain fracking puts on water resources, the potential for chemicals to migrate underground, and spills of fracking chemicals. Investigators also found "specific instances" where the fracking process contaminated drinking water.
Why didn't EPA find evidence of "widespread, systemic" impacts? The agency admits this conclusion could be due to the constraints of its own study, at least a partial reflection of industry pressure. Those limitations: "insufficient pre- and post-fracking data on the quality of drinking water sources; the paucity of long-term systematic studies; the presence of other sources of contamination precluding a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing activities; and the inaccessibility of some information on hydraulic fracturing activities and potential impacts."
For the people who have gotten sick from drinking water contaminated by fracking, "widespread, systemic impacts" versus "vulnerabilities" that cause pollution may be a distinction without a difference. The truth remains for the people of Dimock, Pa., Garfield County, Col., and hundreds of other communities across the country: a rapidly expanding, little-regulated, inherently unsafe practice is polluting our air and water, making people sick, and threatening public safety.
This particular study is only a draft, and there is still time for public comment to help improve it, so that it can better inform public debate and public policy. But the evidence already abounds: the only way to protect our drinking water from fracking is to end this harmful practice altogether.
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