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Advisory group set to ask EPA to clarify report of fracking's effect on water quality

| Tuesday, June 14, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Gas wells near State Game Land 117 in Washington County on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Gas wells near State Game Land 117 in Washington County on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.

An advisory committee of environmental and public health experts is set to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its report from a five-year study of whether fracking has harmed drinking water to quantify and qualify its major finding of no “widespread” or “systemic” impacts.

The use of those words in the top conclusion from the landmark study issued last year was too vague for many members of the EPA's Science Advisory Board and a technical panel led by Carnegie Mellon University professor David Dzombak, some of whom questioned whether the agency has enough data to support such a finding.

The 47-member board is tasked with reviewing EPA programs and studies. It decided Tuesday during a meeting in Alexandria, Va., to have a smaller group of board members led by Dzombak revise its review of the EPA's study and a related set of recommendations before they are sent to the agency. The board wants clarification from the EPA on whether the data support the broad and firm conclusion about fracking's impact. The board also intends to ask the EPA to define its findings using quantitative language instead of what several members called value statements.

“From a scientific perspective, I find it vague. I think it needs numbers,” University of Texas professor Charles Werth said.

The latest draft of the board's proposed report to the EPA — which Dzombak's panel revised twice over the past year — also suggests the agency add a discussion of isolated cases of water contamination linked to shale drilling and the handling of wastewater; describe best practices employed by the industry; and explain why it decided to review data from other studies instead of collecting its own, among other recommendations.

The question of whether and how the huge increase in shale drilling over the past decade could lead to contamination of water supplies has set a primary point of contention between the industry and opponents.

Industry groups asked the board to reject some of the panel's proposed recommendations, arguing the data were clear.

“EPA's high-level conclusion statement is sound and supported by the numerous findings of the academic community, government agencies and professional societies, and does not require clarification or additional explanation,” said Bruce Thompson, president of the Washington-based American Exploration & Production Council.

In comments to the board, industry officials said reviewers should distinguish between cases of contamination linked to sloppy drilling or handling of waste and the specific process of hydraulic fracturing, in which rock is broken apart thousands of feet below the water table to free trapped gas and oil.

Environmental advocates and some board members said all stages of drilling, fracking, production and eventual capping of wells should be considered.

The EPA's finding of no systemic or widespread impacts served as the focus of much of the debate.

“My personal view is, we could discuss that high-level statement for a long time. And we did on the panel,” Dzombak said.

Four of the 30 members of Dzombak's technical panel indicated they had no problem with those words. Environmental advocates disagreed.

“EPA cannot say with any certainty how widespread or systemic the impacts of hydraulic fracturing are, due to the lack of available data and because EPA did not perform a statistical analysis,” said Lynn Thorp, a campaign manager for Clean Water Action.

All but one member of Dzombak's panel agreed that the EPA conducted a comprehensive assessment.

Once the board sends a final version of its review to the EPA, the agency is not obligated to act on any recommendations, Dzombak said.

The board has recommended changes to studies in the past, including a 2014 review that disagreed with one of three findings in a study on streams and wetlands.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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