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EPA’s science advisers challenge agency report on the safety of fracking

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WASHINGTON – Science advisers to the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday challenged an already controversial government report on whether thousands of oil and gas wells that rely on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” systemically pollute drinking water across the nation.

That EPA report, many years in the making and still not finalized, had concluded, “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States,” adding that while there had been isolated problems, those were “small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

The conclusion was widely cited and interpreted to mean that while there may have been occasional contamination of water supplies, it was not a nationwide problem. Many environmental groups faulted the study, even as industry groups hailed it.

But the 30-member advisory panel on Thursday concluded the agency’s report was “comprehensive but lacking in several critical areas.”

It recommended that the report be revised to include “quantitative analysis that supports its conclusion” — if, indeed, the conclusion can be defended.

The panel said its critique was backed by 26 of its members, but four dissented. The advisory group is comprised of academic, government, and industry scientists.

The EPA report in question was originally requested by Congress in 2010, when one of the principal environmental concerns centered on whether fracking could contaminate drinking supplies. Since then, other environmental questions — including concerns over methane emissions from drilling operations — have also gained prominence.

The report, published in June of last year in draft form, represents a nearly five-year effort by the EPA to analyze technical data from thousands from fracking operations and nearby aquifers in states around the country.

The study has been dogged by controversy over the scope and scale of the research. The draft study linked fracking to a few cases of water pollution but said the problems appeared so far to be isolated. It cautioned that a number of fracking-related activities carry a future risk of polluting wells and aquifers used for drinking and farming.

The EPA acknowledged last year that it was hampered in its assessment by inadequate data, preventing experts from reaching firm conclusions about whether contaminants in an individual well came from fracking or another source. Some critics of the report said poor data skewed the agency’s conclusions.

The Sierra Club hailed the Science Advisory Board critique, saying it “called out” the agency. “Instead of blindly allowing destructive fracking to continue in our communities, we should extend statewide fracking bans and moratoriums that will keep dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuels like fracked gas in the ground.”

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, refers to oil and gas wells that are drilled deep in the ground and then horizontally. After that, water containing some chemicals is blasted at high pressure into the well to fracture the rock, unlocking previously trapped natural gas or oil that then flows back up the well.

This technology has driven a major domestic U.S. oil and gas boom that has contributed to the recent plunge in oil prices and triggered the collapse of the coal industry. But there have also been widespread claims that major fracking operations in some communities have contaminated drinking water with methane gas or other substances.

“EPA will use the [science advisory board’s] final comments and suggestions, along with relevant literature published since the release of the draft assessment, and public comments received by the agency, to revise and finalize the assessment,” agency spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said in a statement. “EPA appreciates the work done by the SAB and hopes to finalize the assessment in 2016.”

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