Power & Water

Congressional research group issues report on EPA’s Pavillion investigation

This week, members of Congress received a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s draft report of the Pavillion groundwater contamination investigation.

EPA’s draft report, issued on December 8, stoked America’s ongoing debate over the oil and gas industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — by concluding that compounds found in the aquifer near Pavillion, Wyo., are likely associated with industry activity, including fracking.

Fracking Graphic - ProPublica
This graphic explains the hydraulic fracking process. (Al Granberg/ProPublica — click to enlarge)

The CRS, a public policy research agency that reports directly to congressional committees and staff, found no obvious concerns with the legality and quality of EPA’s draft report. CRS provided a summary of EPA’s findings, along with a summary of formal comments submitted to EPA so far. Essentially, CRS reported to Congress what EPA’s draft report did and did not say.

“Detecting and distinguishing between potentially shallow and potentially deep sources of groundwater contamination lies at the heart of the primary findings in the EPA Draft Report,” CRS stated in its January 25 report to Congress. “Whether the (EPA) report clearly links groundwater contamination to drilling or hydraulic fracturing activities at depth has been the source of relatively heated commentary by proponents and opponents of the use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas development.”

The CRS goes on to explain, “EPA did not appear to conclude that there was a definitive link to a release from the (oil and natural gas) production wells, nor to the constituents found in the domestic wells in the shallower portion of the aquifer. Absent such a link, EPA also did not conclude in its Draft Report that the constituents found in the aquifer were caused by a specific release that may pose a threat to human health or the environment at the Pavillion site.”

The public comment period on the draft report was extended through March 12. The draft report will undergo an “external review” by an independent panel of scientific experts, and nominations of experts to the panel are being accepted until February 17.

Fracking is the method of pumping a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals into petroleum-laden formations under high pressure to force open cracks in the shale and allow oil and natural gas to flow through production wells.

Wyoming stakeholders participating in the Pavillion groundwater contamination investigation had received a preliminary copy of EPA’s draft report before it was released on December 8. Immediately following the release, both EnCana Oil & Gas USA (the company that owns and operates the Pavillion gas field) and Wyoming state officials slammed the EPA and the report, questioning the agency’s methods and analysis.

John Fenton, a Pavillion area rancher among several who suspect oil and gas activity there may contribute to water contamination, told WyoFile on Thursday, “People around here are really disappointed about how the state has attacked this (EPA draft report).”

“I think there’s been a lot of misinformation about the whole process out here,” Fenton continued. “It’s disheartening because we tried and tried to get the state of Wyoming to do something about it.”

State and industry officials contend that the EPA is withholding important information related to the investigation that could help stakeholders judge the quality of EPA’s draft report, and say that much more monitoring, sampling and analysis is needed to draw conclusions about the source and extent of groundwater contamination in Pavillion.

Regarding the heated exchange between stakeholders over the EPA draft report, the CRS concluded, “… it is likely that proponents and opponents of hydraulic fracturing will continue to disagree over the EPA Draft Report’s main conclusions linking hydraulic fracturing chemicals, and perhaps the hydraulic fracturing process specifically, with groundwater contamination in the Pavillion area.”

The Energy and Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Wednesday regarding EPA’s research of fracking, including the Pavillion groundwater contamination investigation. Witnesses scheduled to testify before the committee include Tom Doll, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor; Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance; Bernard Goldstein, professor and dean emeritus at University of Pittsburg’s Graduate School of Public Health; and Paul Anastas, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

No Pavillion area residents were invited to testify during the hearing, so several residents say they will take part in a teleconference at 11 a.m. on Tuesday to express their support of the EPA’s investigation. Speakers will include John Fenton, impacted landowner, chairman of the Pavillion Area Concern Citizens, board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council; Louis Meeks, impacted resident, member of Powder River Basin Resource Council; Jeff Locker, impacted resident, member of Pavillion Area Concern Citizens; Wilma Subra, chemist and technical advisor, and president of Subra Co.

 — Click here to download a PDF of the CRS report.

Visit the EPA’s Pavillion investigation website to download a PDF of the Draft Report, and view project updates.

Related stories:

EnCana wants fracking expert on EPA’s review panel

EnCana to EPA: Stop public comment on Pavillion fracking report

— EPA Pavillion report stokes fire over fracking

— Find the source in Pavillion

— EPA finds compound used in fracking in Wyoming aquifer

— One man’s mystery leads to backlash against fracking

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Graphic originally used in the ProPublica article “What Is Hydraulic Fracturing?”

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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