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No results yet in EPA report on fracking and drinking water

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An intermediate report on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's a study on hydraulic fracturing and drinking water turns out to be less than anticipated.

When the agency completed the study plan in November 2011 for its far-ranging, Congressionally requested "Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources," it said that it would release results in two phases.

An initial report covering existing data, retrospective studies, initial laboratory work and some other results is scheduled to be out in 2012—or now. The final report, to include prospective studies and longer-term laboratory work, would be released in 2014.

But the document the agency released Dec. 21 is characterized as a "status report" and includes no results.

The broad study consists of 18 research projects into questions about five states of the hydraulic fracturing process:

  • Water acquisition: What are the potential impacts of large volume water withdrawals from ground and surface waters on drinking water resources?
  • Chemical mixing: What are the possible impacts of surface spills on or near well pads of hydraulic fracturing fluids on drinking water resources?
  • Well injection: What are the possible impacts of the injection and fracturing process on drinking water resources?
  • Flowback and produced water: What are the possible impacts of surface spills on or near well pads of flowback and produced water on drinking water resources?
  • Wastewater treatment and waste disposal: What are the possible impacts of inadequate treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewaters on drinking water resources?

The EPA summarized the status in its 278-page document by approach.

  • In the analysis of existing data, the agency has received information from nine hydraulic fracturing service companies, specifics on 333 wells, more than 12,000 chemical disclosure records from the industry's FracFocus database, and spill reports from four sources; it also is conducting a literature review.

  • Scenario evaluations are looking at impacts on drinking water sources of large-volume withdrawals in two basins, one semi-arid and one humid. In addition, computer models are exploring the possibility of subsurface gas and fluid migration from shale to overlying formations in six scenarios.
  • For the laboratory studies, new analytical methods are being developed where there is no standard method for low-level detection of chemicals of interest. Studies focusing on thepotential impacts of inadequate treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewater on drinking water resources are being planned and conducted.
  • A toxicity assessment has identified more than 1,000 chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid and found in flowback and produced water. Properties have been compiled, where known, and are being estimated where necessary. The extent of exposure and potential impacts on drinking water have not yet been addressed.
  • Two rounds of sampling at five retrospective case study locations have been completed, including water samples from 70 domestic water wells, 15 monitoring wells and 13 surface water sources. Additional sampling for the retrospective studies is planned. Prospective case studies also are in planning.
  • Of its final report, the agency wrote, "The EPA will strive to make the report of results as clear and definitive as possible in answering all of the primary and secondary research questions, at that time. Science and technology evolve, however: the agency does not believe that the report of results will provide definitive answers on all research questions for all time and fully expects that additional research needs will be identified."

It estimates the final report will be released in late 2014.