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GAO seeks more drinking water safeguards

| Monday, July 28, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

A congressional watchdog wants the Environmental Protection Agency to better protect the nation's drinking water when it comes to risks posed by disposing of wastewater from the oil and gas industry deep underground.

The Government Accountability Office on Monday released a report recommending the EPA look at emerging risks such as earthquakes, the use of diesel in fracking and overpressurization of wells, and how agency safeguards stack up against such risks.

The 103-page GAO report recommends that the EPA ensure it can oversee and enforce programs nationwide involving Underground Injection Control (UIC) class II wells, including one the EPA oversees in Pennsylvania.

“It's the tip of the iceberg in many ways,” Pittsburgh attorney Emily Collins said of the report and issues surrounding deep injection wells. She represents clients fighting a Clearfield County company that wants to inject drilling wastewater into the ground. “It's a complicated mix of issues.”

A GAO representative did not respond to a message seeking comment. An EPA spokeswoman referred to a letter Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner wrote in June to GAO officials.

“The EPA is well aware of these issues and has undertaken a number of activities over recent years to proactively address them,” Stoner wrote, noting that in 2010 the agency established safeguards for pressure buildup in wells and this year created permitting guidance for the use of diesel fuels in fracking activities.

A State-EPA UIC National Technical Workgroup report, which contains recommendations for reducing induced-seismic risks, is undergoing independent scientific peer review, Stoner said.

In April, geologists in Ohio linked earthquakes in the Appalachian foothills to hydraulic fracturing. Five small tremors were recorded in March near Youngstown. The scientists found that the injection of sand, water and fracking chemicals in the Utica shale likely increased pressure on a small, unknown fault.

Earlier studies linked earthquakes in the region to deep-injection wells used for disposing of wastewater from the fracking process.

Better communication and data management between Washington headquarters and EPA regions are challenges the agency recognizes, Stoner acknowledged.

At least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into more than 172,000 wells across the country each day to enhance oil and gas production or to dispose of waste returned to the surface during oil and gas extraction, the GAO reported.

Regulations to protect drinking water resources apply to those wells, though the GAO noted that EPA grant money for UIC class II programs has remained at $11 million for more than a decade.

The report examined activity in eight states, including Pennsylvania, from 2008-12. No allegations of contamination or significant noncompliance violations were reported for the 1,865 class II wells here during that period, according to the report.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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