Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grading EPA's Investigations In Parker County, Pavillion, & Dimock "Fracking" Cases

The first thing to note about EPA's investigations into local cases concerning impacts of gas drilling on water is that they are few in number.  To my knowledge, just the fingers on one had is enough to count them.

The EPA has intervened in three cases involving drilling or hydraulic fracturing--Parker County, Texas, Pavillion, Wyoming, and Dimock, Pennsylvania--and is also conducting a general investigation mandated by Congress.  In each case, EPA has responded to sustained and often organized expressions of public concern.

EPA must respond to legitimate public concerns, but the Parker County, Pavillion, and Dimock cases are teaching the EPA through hard experience that beginning its own investigation is a truly big decision.  Inevitably, these cases are complex, controversial, and also involve state regulators. None of that means the EPA should never intervene, but it does counsel the EPA to be always cautious about intervening.

Putting aside EPA's general investigation into hydraulic fracturing that is in its early stages but seems to be going well, let's focus on the three local cases in which the EPA has intervened.  How is it doing?

During the afternoon of Friday, March 30, EPA Region 6 issued a public statement that effectively dropped its case against Range Resources concerning alleged contamination of water wells in Parker County.  Range Resources will no longer be required to deliver water to two homes and will cooperate with EPA to monitor water quality at a number of water wells in the area.

The Friday afternoon timing of the EPA Region 6 statement concerning Parker County suggests EPA is less than pleased that it got involved in the Parker county case.  Indeed, the Parker County matter includes a judge finding that evidence had been doctored by some opposed to gas drilling for the purpose of encouraging EPA to enforce against Range Resources.  The judge's finding on a fabricated video is shocking reading and reminds that some are willing to trample truth to win.

Bottom line is that EPA should never have pursued action in Parker County. Its intervention was a mistake. On this one, EPA gets an F.

In the case of Pavillion, Wyoming, EPA issued a draft report and sought public comment.  As a result of comments received from Encana and others, EPA has agreed to take more water samples. Some  characterize the EPA process and response as examples of regulatory failure.  I don't agree.

No matter what the additional water testing of the aquifer shows concerning whether or not hydraulic fracturing itself contaminated water, the EPA Pavillion investigation has apparently confirmed at least two events that are troubling.  First, there seems to be no argument that storage pits did leak and did cause some water contamination, as the EPA report states.  Second, there seems to be no argument that hydraulic fracturing was conducted within, at most, a few hundred feet of the aquifer, a practice that simply is too risky, regardless of whether contamination did or did not result.

As to EPA's willingness to do more water testing and sampling in Pavilion, in response to thoughtful criticisms made by Encana and others, I give credit to EPA for doing so and for establishing an investigation process that began with a draft of its Report issued to the public and then included an opportunity for public comments that the EPA has obviously taken seriously.  These investigations are complex and difficult.  The goal for a regulatory agency must be to establish the truth and not not to win for winning's sake.  EPA is behaving in keeping with that duty.

To date on Pavillion, I give the EPA a tentative B minus, as the case is not over.

Dimock has become a political football, where most discussion of it contains big errors, and so I have viewed the EPA testing as an opportunity to clarify matters.  I have never seen any evidence that hydraulic fracturing itself caused pollutants to contaminate anybody's water at Dimock, but substantial evidence established that gas did migrate, at least during 2009 and 2010, to 18 water wells, as a result of gas drilling.

On Dimock, I give the EPA a tentative B.

Three cases and three grades--F, B minus, and B--averages to a C for the EPA.  If it completes well the Pavillion and Dimock investigations, EPA's cumulative grade could rise to a B for the three investigations, and that would be good for everyone.


  1. At the time EPA Region 3 released the test results on the 11 wells they had prioritized -- never posted on the web, just delivered to homeowners and sent to media upon request -- they said further results from the larger number of 60-plus sample locations would be rolled out soon.

    But I've seen nothing yet.

    What are the chances EPA has these already? But no one's publicizing them -- including EPA, and including media reps, who have in my judgment become over-invested in their original story lines -- because the findings simply don't help the preferred narrative?

    Can you make a few phone calls?

    1. The EPA must provide (and I am sure will) provide a statement about its full test results, including a second set of samples. I don't know when. But I would assume in no more than 2 months and probably sooner. If I hear anything more, I will post.

  2. Concerned ScientistApril 3, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    I agree for the most part although I might give Cs for both Pavillion and Dimock. Definitely an F for Parker Co., TX where it appears the EPA was working with the same enviromentalists who doctored the video to stick it to Range Resources. If the EPA was found to be working that closely with Range Resources or any other company the cries of foul play would be deafening.

    In Pavillion, the EPA made some very silly and inecusable mistakes in their analysis. EPA has rules about how quickly samples must be analyzed once the samples have been collected. Their samples for Pavillion were not analyzed until well after the expiration date that EPA itself requires outside contractors to meet in order to consider their data legitimate. Apparently their analysis also found benzene in distilled water that was used as a standard. These two failures alone are enough to raise a red flag and the EPA should have gone back and resamples and reanalyzed before putting out their draft report. Apparently that is what they are doing now. I do agree with you that fracking straight into the aquifer or just a few hundred feet below it is not a good idea at all.

    In Dimock, they get a C in my book not for doing the water testing - but for starting up water deliveries to four households based on high sodium, manganese and arsenic. These are all naturally occurring and show that the EPA did not do their homework prior to starting the deliveries. The water deliveries suggest that the companies may be at fault when there was no evidence whatsoever that this was the case.

    So I guess my averate would be a C-/D+

    The EPA looks terrible right now. Actually the Parker County case gives a lot of ammunition to those who see the EPA as ideologically anti-industry and environmentalists and landowners with lawsuits against companies as opportunists out to make a buck.

  3. The difinative answer is that, "Everything in the process of hydraulic-fracturing is deathly dangerous to the environment and the creatures that live in it". The longer we stare at the gas industries shiny new penny and tollerate their stall tactics and jabbering the more damage will be done. The (our)government gets the "F" first because they are supposed to be protecting us from heavy industry and they just aren't doing it. They get an "F" for being unable to resist taking gas industry money for personal gain. They get an "F" because we pay them for their "loyalty to the people first" and there is little evidence that the majority can remember who they work for. John is talking all around the issue over and over while avoiding the true single fact about what this hydraulic-fracturing is doing to the earth's total usable water supply, the air, soil, fish, wildlife, cattle, children and etc.. Admit it or not John is just part of the propaganda, misdirection, stall tactics and confusion that allows this to go on. Enact another law that says, "The natural gas can only be used by residential customers within 200 miles of each well". Now that is fair. The people getting the gas could decide if the gas driller is doing it right and could hold the driller responsible for the damage they do. They could decide if the damage to their personal environment is worth it to get "their gas". Industry and the government need to stop saying, "We are doing this to power America",when we all know that is a lie. Saying a lie over and over will not make it into a truth and it will not make Americans less paranoid about their Senator's and Congressman's greed and motivations for trying to bastardize our laws and our way of life in America.

    1. I want to respond to the sentence: "Industry and the government need to stop saying, 'We are doing this to power America,' when we all know that is a lie."

      Natural gas provides about 26% of all the energy consumed in America; it provides heat to 51% of US homes during winter; it fuels about 27% of all the electricity generated. Only oil at about 34% provides more total energy in the USA, though most oil use is concentrated in transportation. Coal provides about 20% of total energy; nuclear 10% of total energy; and all renewables, including corn ethanol and large hydro about 11%. That's what is powering America. So could we stop using natural gas? Only with huge difficulty and at enormous cost to consumers and to the environment, as much more coal and oil would have to be used to replace it at least for the next 20 years. If there is a "lie" in this tale, it is not facing our real energy choices honestly. None of them come close to being the perfect option that some mistakenly believe is just waiting to be used. All of them have impacts but they are not equal impacts. Indeed today Forbes has a story about both NRDC and the Sierra Club filing litigation to stop a massive solar farm in California. In fact 5 of the largest 9 solar projects in the nation are being sued.

  4. What grade would you give yourself John Hanger? I mean if you are grading EPA, and believe me, I am not impressed with EPA's handling of Dimock...what grade for your performance in the Dimock church or my home or my neighbors yard?? Sadly, what grade will our children's childrens give us?

  5. I conducted a thorough investigation that found 18 water wells had been contaminated with gas from gas drilling but found no contamination by fracking fluids. I ordered the plugging of gas wells, the repairing of gas wells, withheld permits for new drilling, delivery of replacement water, the installation of methane removal systems, fined the company more than $1.3 million, won $4.1 million placed in escrow accounts for 18 families (average amount $201,000). I rewrote the Pennsylvania drilling regulations from September 2008 to January 2011, enacting 5 major regulatory packages. I more than doubled the gas oversight staff, making Pennsylvania the only state to do major hiring when shale gas development came. I also have spent years developing wind, solar, biofuels, and promoting energy efficiency. There is more but I will leave it there.

    1. yet, you did allow the gas company to say they did not do anything wrong. Correct? What that did John was allow ALL gas companies to continue to operate in a way that saved them money but put us at risk. What did you really accomplish? Gas wells are still leaking. Folks are on bottle water and water buffaloes and the numbers grow. Unfortunately, too many are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. Some of us, myself at the top of the list, refuse to drink the kool aid and pretend that drilling for gas within communities is not risky. Eventually, I believe the truth will prevail. I am not arrogant to grade anyone..I only brought it up because you decided you could do that. Grading DEP in PA regarding the Dimock situation, the Lennox situation, the Franklin Forks, and the others that are afraid to talk?? The "P" in DEP and EPA are for political and that translates into we are so in trouble.Making deals with the gas company behind closed doors was, in my mind, collusion and illegal. p.s. the gas migration problem has not been resolved here.

    2. Requiring Cabot to establish individual escrow accounts for the 18 families that averaged $201,000 and totaling $4.1 million was very public. 7 families have taken the escrow accounts. All that is public, with a press release and more to make it public.

      By December 2010, the well-plugging and repairs that cost Cabot many more millions had gotten the gas out of 13 water wells. The December 2010 tests showed those 13 water wells had water safe to drink. The recent round of EPA tests at 11 homes had a similar results. And EPA is doing a second sample.

      Moreover, thousands of deaths and illnesses have been prevented by replacing old-coal power plants with gas plants that emit ZERO soot, mercury.

      Yes, gas has impacts but less than coal and oil, much less. Yes, gas must be strongly regulated. And the 4 new sets of rules plus more than doubling the number of gas oversight staff from 2008 to 2011 helps to do that. And yes there is more to do.

  6. Fracking for natural gas is too dangerous, too expensive and unnecessary for our energy needs. It has already contaminated surface and ground water, the waste "flow back" and "produced water" can never be recycled or reclaimed and pumping it into deep water waste wells causes earthquakes. It pollutes the air from burning the waste gases or flaring until it is hooked up to a pipeline. The trucks and pumps at well heads and pumping stations run around the clock and their diesel engines and motors pollute the air with chemical wastes and noise. Finally, before any more permits are issued and any more wells drilled, people should read the latest study by Jacobson and Delucchi in the March 2011 issue of Energy Policy. We can transition to a renewable energy economy without fossil fuel, nuclear power or biomass fuels by 2030. The only thing blocking us is not the science or technology, it is, as they said in their Nov. 2009 article in Scientific American,the political will. Why?, because the energy industry has bought our Federal and State politicians hook, line and sinker.

  7. Mr. Hanger: I would encourage you read the entire order on the Parker County case. In it, you will see that Range Resources must still comply with a large portion of the directives. Although Range Resources likes to say they are 'voluntarily' conducting additional testing and monitoring. The judge in the case is also seriously in question, deciding that the video was 'doctored'without any explanation as to how he arrived at that decision. I suppose it's just a coincidence that he's up for re-election and looks to Industry for a large portion, if not majority of his campaign and political support.

    The TCEQ and more importantly, The Texas Railroad Commission, has failed the citizens of Texas time and time again. I've seen this failure with my own eyes. I have been physically present when one of their inspectors sees multiple violations and openly admits that these are violations, then goes so far as to list out in writing specific directives that the operator must comply with-but never does, and his report ultimately shows 'No Violations Found', and no action of any kind is taken on the operator for subverting the rules.

    I bet you also did not know that the Commissioners can (and do) accept not only political contributions largely from Industry but campaign contributions-even in years when they are not running for re-election. If that's not the purchase of influence, I don't what is.

    The commissioners spend a great deal of time acting as politicians, not regulators. You will often find them writing OpEd pieces, bashing property owners, labeling them as 'unsatisfied landowners' without knowing anything about them or their situation, other than they aren't mineral right owners, and for some strange reason, have the audacity to complain about the noisy, malfunctioning compressor station mere yards from their home.

    If you take the time to look at the true facts and source of complaints-the TRRC, you'll see there are literally, hundred upn hundreds of complaints; everything from headaches, nausea and nosebleeds to contaminated water, destruction of property and nuisance-but rarely any 'violation'.

    You might also notice that the Commissioners pend a great deal of time promoting Industry, going out of their way to talk about the so-called job creation and how wonderful everything is, thanks to natural gas and ultimately destroying someone's property against their will and desire. Those and these stories are in Texas.

    Perhaps you're familiar with Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, who were run over by Range Resources in western PA. We know there's a settlement that took place because Range Resources violated the agreement and the Pittsburgh Post made it public. Since the Hallowich's are friends of mine, I know all too well how the DEP-under your watch-FAILED them repeatedly for too long.

    I think you had your opportunity to do the right thing, and from my point of view, the DEP doesn't do anymore for the people of PA than the TRRC does for Texas. If you're going to call yourselves 'regulators', then regulate, not pontificate all the 'benefits' of extracting gas, almost always at the expense of someone else.

    1. Pennsylvania issued 1200 violations to the industry in 2010. That number was twice the next highest state. Pennsylvania was the only state to hire more oversight staff with the shale gas boom. The staff increased from 88 to 202 from 2008 when I became secretary to 2011.

      Other enforcement included witholding permits, plugging gas wells, making companies pay millions to clean up spills and leaks, and separate fines.

      Oversight and enforcement remain important duties.