Scientists Urge EPA to Clarify Fracking Study

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By Alan Kovski

Aug. 11 — The Environmental Protection Agency should revise its summary statements in a report on hydraulic fracturing risks to clearly link those statements to evidence found in the body of the report, the EPA Science Advisory Board said Aug. 11.

The SAB review of the EPA's hydraulic fracturing study included points similar to what the advisory board's hydraulic fracturing panel had proposed, especially in regard to a much-debated statement by the EPA that the agency did not find evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

“The SAB concludes that if the EPA retains this conclusion, the EPA should provide quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion,” the science advisers said.

The advisory board's review included an appendix with the dissenting view of four members of the hydraulic fracturing panel who said the summary statement about the lack of “widespread, systemic impacts” was accurate, unambiguous and supportable with the facts studied by the EPA.

It has been more than five years since the EPA started working on its study, “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” issued in draft final form in June 2015 and submitted to the SAB for review before a final version is issued.

The study was requested by Congress in 2009.

EPA Urged to Clarify Scale of Risks

The science advisers criticized more than the phrasing in the EPA study's executive summary. The full board, like its hydraulic fracturing panel, urged the EPA to provide more clarity in terms of the degrees of various risks.

“The EPA should consider prioritizing the major findings that have been identified within Chapters 4-9 of the final Assessment Report according to expectations regarding the magnitude of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing-related activities on drinking water resources,” the advisory board said.

To help the reader understand the most differing magnitudes of potential hazards, the EPA “should clearly describe the probability, risk and relative significance of potential hydraulic fracturing-related failure mechanisms, and the frequency of occurrence and most likely magnitude and/or probability of risk of water quality impacts associated with such failure mechanisms,” the advisory board said.

That criticism reflected the science advisers' concern that the EPA study pointed to various risks without making clear that some might be more or less likely to occur and might have larger or smaller impacts. The advisers' point was that not all worries merit equal weight.

The advisory board expressed a somewhat similar point when it said a limitation of the EPA’s study was its “lack of analysis of the most likely exposure scenarios and hazards associated with hydraulic fracturing activities.”

More Data, Including Controversies

The EPA assessment was 998 pages in its draft final form. The science advisers recommended adding much more information to it.

Many of the criticisms are recommendations for more information, such as information on the toxicity of chemicals used in fracking fluids and characterizations of the different kinds of impacts on surface water and groundwater.

The science advisers recommended inclusion of information on three controversial cases of water pollution—in Dimock, Pa., Pavillion, Wyo., and Parker County, Texas. Examination of those “high-visibility cases” is important so that the public “can more fully understand the status of the investigations, conclusions of the investigations and lessons to be learned,” the advisers said.

The science advisers did not cite any conclusions or lessons that were learned, however, and neither the EPA nor state regulators have suggested there are solid conclusions or clear lessons in those cases. The three cases have been a focus of much environmental activism and complaints of local property owners who say fracking polluted their water wells.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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