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EPA grilled over Pavillion report

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Danielle Venton | Feb 02, 2012 06:00 AM

The opening act of yesterday's hearing led by the House subcommittee on Energy and the Environment was uncommonly action-packed: Josh Fox, documentary filmmaker and director of "Gasland," was lead from the room in handcuffs, on the grounds he did not have the right credentials. Earlier, a camera crew claiming to be from ABC news was turned away for the same reason. For Capitol Police, the rest of the hearing was comparatively dull. For witnesses and questioners, the early tension set the tone. The back-and-forth between industry and pro-drilling conservatives and EPA supporters seen at the hearing -- at times antagonistic, at times bewildering -- implies that disagreements will rage on, regardless of disinterested scientific consensus. 

Verbal fisticuffsThe hearing, led by Andy Harris, subcommittee chairman and Maryland Republican, questioned the scientific integrity of a draft report on fracking-caused groundwater contamination released by the Environmental Protection Agency Dec. 8. Since its release, the State of Wyoming and industry representatives have attacked the draft report.  They don’t like its conclusions: that fracking in the area around Pavillion, Wyo. was likely the cause of ground water pollution in the area. 

Testimony from the study's opponents attacked those results.

"The EPA's own data contained within [the report] doesn't support the conclusions presented up front," said Kathleen Sgamma, an industry representative from the Western Energy Alliance, sitting on the witness panel. "We are left wondering why the EPA would jump to conclusions, proceeding without State input or peer review." 

The EPA, Sgamma alleged, is not acting as a disinterested scientific organization. "We're worried that America is depriving itself of economic opportunities."  

Subcommittee chairman Harris seemed to agree, saying that  natural gas was "one of the few bright spots in our economy," and, in a "remarkable display of arrogance on the part of the president" the EPA was allowed to "use and abuse science." As a result, he said, "we have politics trumping policy, and advocacy trumping science." 

The primary criticisms of Harris, Sgamma and fellow-witness Tom Doll, Wyoming's Oil and Gas Supervisor for the state Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, centered on the lack of peer review, state and industry input, the EPA's handling of press releases, and the location and depth of the sampling wells. The possibility that the EPA had contaminated its own samples through the testing process was also floated. 

James Martin, the EPA's regional administrator for the West, used his testimony to counter that the State and Encana, the drilling company, had been consulted many times before, during and after the testing. A group of external scientists were consulted on the draft report prior to its early December release, Martin said. Also,  at the request of industry, the public comment period on the study had been extended from 45 days to 90 days. And that, following the comment period, the report would be subject to standard peer review.

In most of the production wells tested, Martin said, the cement casing that would protect the drinking water aquifer from fracking chemicals was weak or absent. This is one of the potential pathways through which fracking chemicals could have vertically migrated, he said. Martin stressed that the report stated clearly its conclusions were only applicable for the geology of the Pavillion area. In Pavillion fracking takes place much nearer the surface than in other fracked areas, such as Pennsylvania.

Attackers of the report were unconsoled. "The EPA is trying to go after fracking everywhere they can," Harris said. "They’ve had absolutely no proof that fracking had polluted drinking water, that I know of." Harris was concerned of the impact the report would have on industry. Egged on by the EPA, he and Sgamma seemed to imply, the media had whipped itself into an ill-informed frenzy, seeding fear and mistrust of fracturing among the public. 

The public should be concerned, said Dr. Bernard Goldstein, of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, also a witness at the hearing. Policy makers, in his opinion, don't have enough information to protect public health. 

The industry's reassurance that fracking was an old technology, with a history of proven safety, was misleading, he said. Modern fracking is drastically different, using new mixtures of chemicals; millions of gallons, rather than thousands, of water; and far higher pressures. 

"To say we know about fracking, so it's safe, is equivalent to saying there's no difference between a hand grenade and a two ton bomb, because we know about explosives."

Affected residents from Pavillion, including those who originally requested EPA involvement, were not invited to the hearing. On Tue., Jan. 31, the day before the House hearing, several held a media call to relate their experiences. Their dishes must be washed with bottled water, they said. When they shower they ventilate the bathroom, owing to high levels of methane in the water. They related myriad health problems, including asthma and cardiac trouble. 

After years of trying and failing to address the problem through local and company authorities, they said, they finally requested the EPA's involvement in 2008. 

"This whole process started," said John Fenton, an impacted landowner and chairman of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, "because the people were ignored and minimized by their state government. We tried for years to solve it through state and local channels, but it was nothing more than smoke and mirrors." 

Resident Jeff Lockler said he and his family had been impacted since the mid-1990s. "Our biggest concern is what this is doing to our health," Lockler said. 

"We don't even know if it's safe to live here now, but property values have decreased so, we don't have the option to leave." 

An archived webcast of Wednesday's hearing is at www.science.house.gov. The public is able to comment on the report until March 12.

Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News.

Image credit Sarah Gilman.

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