Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a long-awaited report about the impacts of fracking on drinking water. As the policy intern here at BCAction, I attended a webinar the EPA hosted in conjunction with the report’s release to learn more about what this new report said. I already knew there’s clear evidence that fracking impacts people’s health and was eager to learn more.
According to the EPA staff leading the report’s release, this study on fracking’s real and potential impact on drinking water is unequivocally not a human health, exposure, or risk assessment. This is absurd, considering drinking water is a fundamental human need and right – threats to drinking water pose grave dangers to human health.
A running theme throughout the EPA’s commentary about their own study was the limited nature of its contents. For example, in identifying ‘potential vulnerabilities’ to drinking water, an EPA staffer commented that the number of impacts to drinking water was ‘small’ in relation to the number of fractured wells. In the same breath, he stated how this finding could be a result of true rarity, or due to a lack of sufficient data – the data on chemical types, quantity and impact being so heavily restricted by the fracking industry.
Fracking companies claim one or more chemical ingredients used in hydraulic fluids as confidential business secrets in at least 70% of their descriptions of chemicals – rendering these descriptions incomplete. This is just one example of how a lack of basic information about fracking limits our ability to conduct comprehensive risk assessments about this practice – and why the EPA’s report only skims the surface.
So what does this assessment of fracking’s impact on drinking water tell us?:
- Five retrospective case studies have demonstrated cases of drinking water contamination post-fracking.
- 21,900 wells are located within one mile of a public water source like a spring or reservoir.
- 6,800 sources of drinking water, which serve 8.6 million people per year, are located within one mile of one or more wells.
- In the well injection process, specific rates of well failure and subsequent contamination of drinking water are not known – but are generally becoming worse over time. Other potential exacerbations of contamination include well-to-well communication.
- There were 134 chemicals found in flowback and produced water, which flows out of wells once fracking pressure is released – again, the impact of this is difficult to analyze due to limited data.
- 64% of hydraulic fluid spills reach soil through multiple pathways due to both equipment and human failure in wastewater management of said fluids.
The report also said that the “co-location of hydraulic fracturing activities with drinking water resources increases the potential for these activities to affect the quality and quantity of current and future drinking water resources.”
Although new legislation to protect streams from fracking runoff has been introduced as a response to the report, with nearly 10 million Americans living within a mile of a fracked well, we agree with other activists that this assessment falls unacceptably short in providing robust evidence of specific ways in which fracking does or does not contribute to health harms including but not limited to breast cancer.
It is no surprise that this EPA report with information limited and controlled by the oil and gas industry failed to answer critical questions about exactly how fracking impacts our health.
We must continue to demand transparency from this toxic industry, and to act with urgency on the already damning information we do have. We must act together to protect the health of communities already affected by fracking and those whose health will be threatened in the future. We need to proactively protect public health before further harm occurs. As Dr. Sandra Steingraber said in a recent interview, ‘if you had a tooth infection, would you wait for it to become widespread and systemic before you take an antibiotic?’