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Lack of partners holds up EPA study on fracking, water wells

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 11:58 a.m.

The Environmental Protection Agency can't find a partner to help perform a study of shale drilling and drinking water, a year after it said it would take such action, a federal official said Friday in Oakland.

The result is that federal scientists may not be able to do before-and-after testing of shale gas operations in Washington County and other locations.

EPA science adviser Glenn Paulson detailed the problem at the University of Pittsburgh's annual conference on shale drilling's health effects. The agency still is looking for companies to give them access for the study, due in 2014, he told a crowd of more than 150 people.

“I think it's critically important to do the before-and-after test,” said Leonard W. Casson, an environmental engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who does drinking water research. “That way it removes ambiguity and provides the final proof of principle on whether there's an effect or not an effect. That would be a definitive answer to the question.”

Agency officials said in June 2011 they were going to test through the full life cycle of wells at a Range Resources Corp. site in Washington County and at a site in Louisiana. One of those proved technically unsuited for the research and the agency has yet to finalize a deal with the company that was going to give it access to the other, Paulson said after his speech.

He could not remember which was which, said Paulson, who joined the agency in the spring. Lawyers from the agency and the drilling company in question are negotiating and still could reach an agreement, though the agency is looking elsewhere, too, he added.

The work was among 21 research projects Congress ordered in an effort to assess the impacts of the country's natural gas boom on drinking-water supplies. Despite the setback the other projects are on course and Paulson believes they will represent a significant scientific advancement when the agency's final report is finished, he told the crowd.

“This has the promise to be pretty close to definitive on the drinking water/fracturing issue ... as anything else that's going on,” he said during his talk. “We want the science to be rock solid,” he added to reporters later.

Range Resources welcomes such federal research, spokesman Matt Pitzarella said when reached about Paulson's comments. He could not immediately confirm whether the company — which has offices in Cecil and headquarters in Texas — ever had a deal or was working on one for the agency's study.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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