Short On Data, EPA's Final Report On Fracking Leaves Many Disheartened
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For a decade there has been a nagging worry about fracking. That's the technique of injecting water and chemicals deep into the earth to extract natural gas. The concern is it contaminates nearby drinking water. Congress ordered the EPA to investigate, but its final report out this month leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Susan Phillips of member station WHYY reports.
SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: Let's go back to 2012, when I visited Victoria Switzer at her home in rural northeast Pennsylvania. She told me how a few years earlier, a gas company man had shown up, lease in hand.
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VICTORIA SWITZER: Friendly, twinkle in his eye and said, beautiful day, isn't it? And I said, yes, it is. And I like to say that's the last honest thing I ever heard from a gas man.
PHILLIPS: Soon after the gas company began its work, Switzer's well water turned black, then orange. Then one day, it was soapy.
SWITZER: Foamy and gray and it smelled.
PHILLIPS: She finally stopped drinking it.
SWITZER: This is supposed to be our wine closet but it ends up being our catch-all for our water. We keep our bottled water in here and we need to go get some because we're getting low.
PHILLIPS: Switzer blamed the gas company for polluting her water, but that was hard to prove because there was no baseline water testing done at her home before the drilling. When the EPA announced its sweeping national study, Switzer hoped for answers. Researchers visited her house, sat at her kitchen table, tested her water. They did this all over the country. The EPA concluded fracking can, in some circumstances, pollute water. The study found badly-constructed wells, frack water spills and poorly-treated wastewater can cause contamination. But the EPA still can't say if gas drilling is what turned Switzer's water all those different colors.
ROB JACKSON: I wish the report had more data in it.
PHILLIPS: Rob Jackson is a fracking expert at Stanford University.
JACKSON: I wish they had done more work trying to understand how frequently, how often things happen, rather than just talking about what can, could and has happened. That's important, but it's not enough. If the EPA can't do it, who can?
PHILLIPS: Jackson says the gas and oil industry is regulated by the states, not the federal government so each state has different reporting requirements and it's hard to get at the big picture.
TOM BURKE: The identification of data gaps is actually an important contribution to the science and not a failure.
PHILLIPS: Tom Burke is the science adviser at EPA.
BURKE: We are really just beginning to understand fracking. And there are not really a lot of reports about what's going on during the fracking process, for instance, basic information about where are the wells, the location of wells.
PHILLIPS: The EPA wasn't able to get industry to cooperate with the study. Erik Milito from the American Petroleum Institute says problems with oil and gas drilling are exaggerated.
ERIK MILITO: This is a technology that's been around a long time. It's been successfully deployed. The risks are low.
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PHILLIPS: After the fracking report came out, I called Victoria Switzer back.
SWITZER: Yeah, how are you?
PHILLIPS: Good, how are you?
She is no longer allowed to talk about her water. Like a lot of people who sue gas companies, their settlements prevent them from ever discussing it, another source of lost data. But Switzer can talk about the EPA study.
SWITZER: I think it gives them continued reason not to do anything. Well, we don't have the evidence. We don't have the data. We don't have the cooperation of the gas companies. Who's in charge here?
PHILLIPS: Switzer says she's lost hope that people like her can turn to the EPA for help. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.