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EPA Gets Carefully Yet Boldly Creative in Wyoming: Conclusion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Saturday, 31 December 2011
AFF Sentinel Vol.8#40

Some have suggested the siting of the exact locations of the EPA's monitoring wells was part of the reason the agency found the things they did. Also, some of the chemistry EPA noted (high pH), could be the result of the EPA's own techniques. An Investor's Business Daily story noted that an industry research group, Energy in Depth said, "dense soda ash has a recorded pH (11.5) very similar to the level found in the deep [monitoring] wells, creating the possibility that the high pH recorded by the EPA could have been caused by the very chemicals it used to drill its own wells," ("Green Groups' Attack on Fracking Based on Bad Science," 12/12/11).

On top of that, the U.S. Geological Survey has found the water quality in the region "highly variable," Investor's noted. The potassium levels detected in one EPA monitoring well fell over 50 percent from October 2010 to April 2011, while the levels in the other well increased over the same dates. That suggests natural variations, not fracking, they concluded. 

The EPA report said the "inorganic geochemistry of ground water from the deep monitoring wells," [EPA's own wells] is "distinctive from that in the domestic wells and expected composition in the Wind River Formation," the geological formation in the area. Then later, the report noted the monitoring wells show "low calcium, sodium and sulfate concentrations compared to the general trend" in domestic water wells. Now organic chemistry was as far as we got but the way we read the report is that the EPA has water samples from its monitoring wells, from water wells and from water from the overall geologic formation - all with a different chemical footprint. That does not help tie things together to blame fracking.

We also find it difficult to follow some of the EPA's evaluation of "alternative explanations." For example, one paragraph of the report reads "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing [emphasis ours]. Now even if one ignores the hedging words in that statement, the rest of the paragraph does not buttress the statement. It notes that both sandstone and shale formations in the area are not continuous and provide little barrier for movement of fluids. Then it confirms that nearby wellbores could be the source of chemicals, specifically noting that one well had no cement to seal around the casing until 2,200 feet below the surface.

To us, that doesn't sound like evidence against fracking properly conducted in an appropriate area. It means poor well construction in an area of porous rock formations could put chemicals in the water table. We're not geologists but the main variable we see between regular production wells and fracking that is relevant here is pressure. That the drinking water wells test safe in the region appears to an outsider more a testament to careful and cautious development of a challenging field than an indictment of a drilling practice with no evidence from here or elsewhere against it.

It looks like poor well construction from another era is quite likely to be involved in polluting the EPA's monitoring wells, and while fracking operations fill out "Material Safety Data Sheets" listing compounds used, proprietary information and the chemical ingredients of many additives are not listed. So the EPA has one mystery chemical -- tert-butyl alcohol - a breakdown product of either a fuel additive or a fracking compound -- that it can't figure out the source of. It wasn't listed as being used by any fracking operations.

We see the bottom line this way. The EPA has gathered a lot of information that, barring some genius sorting out the witches brew against all odds, is probably decades away from the detection and testing capability to trace back what came from where. The water wells are safe for now. If we were running the gas companies in the region, we'd be very careful in selecting the wells for fracking. If we ran the EPA, we'd forget this field as anything but a minefield for trying to prove anything against fracking. And while the gas company involved is already providing drinking water for some residents, despite safe well tests, we'd assume water bills for some time to come would be likely - fair or not. And the EPA muddling around in Pavillion is doing nothing to burnish its water protection credentials.

At a House Oversight Committee last spring, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "I'm not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water."

Despite some bungled hoopla, Jackson still doesn't have any evidence.
Last Updated ( Friday, 06 January 2012 )
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