The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to postpone review of its report tentatively linking hydraulic fracturing to water well contamination near Pavillion pending further testing, which could take place as early as next month.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator, announced the decision in a joint statement with Gov. Matt Mead and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes on Thursday.
“The EPA, the state of Wyoming, and the tribes recognize that further sampling of the deep monitoring wells drilled for the agency’s groundwater study is important to clarify questions about the initial monitoring results,” Jackson, Mead and the tribes said in the joint statement.
The U.S. Geological Survey could begin testing as early as April, EPA spokesman Richard Mylott told the Star-Tribune.
The EPA said it will suspend a peer review of its Dec. 8 report pending new testing data, but leave open the opportunity for the public to comment on the report. Once completed, a peer review panel will study both the original report and the data on which it’s based, and the newly collected testing data.
The operator in the gas field, a Wyoming environmental group and the leader of a group of residents with water concerns hailed the agency’s decision.
John Fenton, a local resident with contaminated water and a chairman of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, said he’s not worried about the additional testing result or the delayed review of the report, which he says was already based on sound science.
“If they can stay to those standards, I think the results the EPA have shown — the preliminary results — are only going to be reinforced by this,” he said.
Fight over testing
The EPA’s draft report, released in December, has been the center of a public spat between state officials and the EPA, which began tests in the area after it received complaints from some residents.
In four rounds of testing between 2009 and 2011, the EPA found contamination in some residents’ water wells that led it to recommend some residents not drink the water.
Based on its findings, the EPA drilled two deep monitoring wells in 2010, sampled them later that year and in April 2011, and also found evidence of contamination of water from nearby fracking operations. In fracking, water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to fracture open pathways for oil and natural gas to flow to the surface.
Some local residents who long suspected the gas field development had poisoned their water wells praised the report, and environmental groups touted it as proof fracking is a menace to groundwater.
But state officials said the agency may not have properly sampled wells and didn’t test them enough times to support the report’s conclusions — claims disputed by the EPA but echoed by the oil and gas industry and amplified by Republicans in Congress.
A spokesman for Encana Corp., the operator in the Pavillion field, applauded the decision to wait for more testing but said it proved the EPA had gotten it wrong.
“Today’s announcement demonstrates the EPA’s report was rushed without peer review and the assertions aren’t supported by the data,” Encana spokesman Doug Hock said in a statement.
Mylott, the EPA spokesman, said the agency still had faith in its draft findings, but had agreed to additional testing after discussions with the state and the tribes.
“Conversations with the state and tribes have made it clear there is some value in gathering additional data,” he said.
Mead previously sent Jackson a letter promising state support for additional testing, and Jackson wrote back to accept. State officials had said they were scrambling to meet a March 12 deadline for comment on the EPA’s draft report, also due for peer review by a panel whose membership had yet to be selected.
Back to the wells
State and industry officials had called for additional testing since the EPA released its December report. Now, with the EPA’s agreement, they’ll get their wish.
The EPA will meet with the tribes, the state and “other stakeholders” to develop a plan to further investigate the gas field, according to the joint statement.
“Additional research will be conducted collaboratively using the highest scientific standards and will be subjected to independent peer review,” Jackson, Mead and the tribes wrote. “We are committed to ensuring the peer review process is conducted with maximum transparency and the highest level of scientific integrity.”
Hock, the Encana spokesman, said two EPA deep monitoring wells that provided crucial data for the EPA’s findings should be independently re-evaluated, but only after the agency examines residents’ water wells.
“Additional testing should be focused on a rigorous evaluation of the taste and odor complaints on each of the domestic wells in question and focus on the chemistry in the domestic water well zone of the subsurface,” he said.
Fenton, the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens chairman, said he hopes the additional testing will strengthen the EPA’s conclusions.
“When we’re done with this, there shouldn’t be any disagreements,” he said. “It should get rid of a lot of the fighting that’s going on.”
Steve Jones, watershed protection program attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said he’s not concerned additional testing will shift the conclusions the EPA made in its draft report.
“I think that collecting more data is a good idea,” he said. “At some point I think the people of Pavillion need an answer, and I hope it won’t delay that answer very long.”