EPA holds Meeting to Review its Draft Assessment of the Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water
On October 28, 2015, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel held a three day public meeting. The purpose of the meeting was for the SAB to peer review EPA’s draft assessment on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, which was released in June, 2015. Although the assessment was originally requested by Congress in 2009, EPA began its process in late 2011 and this draft assessment is the latest step in EPA’s analysis of the issue. The draft assessment follows the hydraulic fracturing water cycle through five stages. These include: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal. During the meeting the SAB, which consists of 30 scientists with varied backgrounds, provided feedback on eight charge questions, which are geared towards evaluating areas where the draft assessment can be clarified and improved.
At the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Thomas Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development provided an overview of the draft assessment, which concluded that although vulnerabilities in the water cycle exist that there is no evidence of widespread systematic impacts on drinking water resources. That being said, Dr. Burke also noted that the draft assessment contains several areas of uncertainty and gaps in data in reaching the conclusions made in the draft assessment. Dr. Burke also stressed that the purpose of draft assessment is to identify areas where more research is needed but it is not intended to be document to assess policy options. After the summary of the draft assessment, there was an opportunity for stakeholders to make brief oral comments comments on the draft assessment (there were approximately 250 sets of comments filed on the EPA docket). All of the groups that made comments during the meeting were from the environmental community. They were all critical of the draft assessment’s conclusion finding no evidence of widespread impacts on drinking water because they did not think that EPA had enough evidence to make this conclusion. They also criticized EPA for not including case studies in Pavillion, WY, Dimmock, PA, and Parker County, TX in the draft assessment as well as scolding the agency generally for not doing anything to address the water quality problems that have been encountered there. Speakers included residents from these three areas who expressed their anger with EPA for dropping these investigations. Several members of the SAB said that they found the frustrations expressed by these residents to be very compelling.
For the remainder of the meeting, SAB members discussed the charge questions and highlighted areas where the draft study could be improved upon. These included:
- The goals and objectives of the study should be clarified and used throughout the study.
- The study should be more generalized so a non-scientific audience would have a better understanding of the issues.
- There should be some discussion of regulatory advances that have been made in various states since the report was initially requested by Congress.
- Experiences at individual sites should be included.
- The incidents in Dimmock, PA, Pavillion, WY, and Parker County Texas should be included in the chapter on case studies.
- Monitoring should be done before, during and after a well’s production life.
- A discussion of induced seismicity could be appropriate.
- The assessment should look at Frac Focus 3 (the current version uses Frac Focus 1).
- The risks referenced in the report should be prioritized in terms of how likely they are to occur and how severe the risks could be.
Now that the SAB and the public have had the opportunity to provide comments on the draft assessment, a revised assessment will be published at a yet to be determined date, according to EPA’s Office of Research and Development. In addition, the SAB will hold its next meeting via teleconference on December 3, 2015. Although EPA has said that the assessment is intended to identify research gaps as opposed to being a policy document, once it is finalized its conclusions are likely to influence hydraulic fracturing regulations on both the federal and state levels