By Patrick D. Joyce and Craig B. Simonsen

Blog - Fracking WaterThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment study last week showing that hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) activities in the U.S. may have potential impacts on the water lifecycle, affecting drinking water resources. 80 Fed. Reg. 32111 (June 5, 2015).

The report, Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (External Review Draft), prepared at the request of Congress, follows the water used for fracking through the entire water cycle from water acquisition, to chemical mixing at the well pad site, to well injection of fracking fluids, to the collection of fracking wastewater (including flowback and produced water), and finally, to wastewater treatment and disposal. Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, noted that “EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources.”

While EPA’s study, which included over 950 sources of information, found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to fracking activities directly impacted drinking water resources, the number of instances found were “small compared to the large number of hydraulically fractured wells across the country.”

The study identified specific vulnerabilities to drinking water resources including:

  • Water withdrawals in areas with low water availability;
  • Fracking conducted directly into formations containing drinking water resources;
  • Inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below ground migration of gases and liquids;
  • Inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources; and
  • Spills of fracking fluids and fracking wastewater, including flowback and produced water.

The study noted that while there were few instances of drinking water contamination cause by fracking, this may be due to a lack of pre- and post-fracturing data on water quality and the inaccessibility of some information on fracking activities.

The draft study will be finalized after review by the Science Advisory Board and public review and comment. Public teleconferences are scheduled on the draft report, on September 30, 2015, October 1, 2015, and October 19, 2015. Public face-to-face meetings will be held on October 28, 2015, October 29, 2015, and October 30, 2015.

Public written statements for the teleconferences or for the face-to-face meetings should be received by the EPA Docket,  No. EPA–HQ–OA–2015–0245, by August 28, 2015.