Final EPA Report: Fracking Threatens Drinking Water - We Just Don’t Know How Much

Dec 13, 2016

Horizontal drilling operation in Doddridge County, West Virginia
Credit Michael and Carrie Kline

After years of researching the environmental effects of horizontal gas drilling, including the controversial practice called “fracking”, the Environmental Protection Agency released a final report that highlights threats, but is still largely inconclusive.

Drilling practices that capture gas trapped in shale rock deep underground can contaminate drinking water - but federal regulators aren’t sure how risky it is. That’s the final takeaway from a $30 million report that took six years to finish.

In a previous draft, altered at the last minute, the EPA wrote there was no conclusive evidence of “widespread, systemic” harm to drinking water. Industry and media outlets interpreted the message to mean drilling practices were safe - despite the many cases of contamination the report went on to highlight.

After being scrutinized by the agency’s own Science Advisory Board, the final report is more carefully written. The number of documented cases of contamination are still small compared to the number of wells drilled. Those instances of contamination are often attributed to poorly built wells, or mishandled waste. Damages to various sources of drinking water range from slight to severe. Ultimately, though, there is not enough data to thoroughly track the extent of possible pollution that has resulted from drilling practices.

Fracking opponents are applauding changes made to the final draft while many industry representatives are now calling the report “absurd”.