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US environmental agency finds no general risk to drinking water from fracking

09 June 2015

In early June, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a draft study concluding that although hydraulic fracturing (fracking) had contaminated some water sources across the country, such pollution was not widespread. The study looked at the risks from drilling, inadequately cemented wells, spills of fracking fluids and wastewater that had not been properly treated.

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“We conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources,” the EPA said in the report. But, “we did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.”

The three-year study warned that fracking could pose potential risks in vulnerable areas where supplies were scarce and where fracturing took place directly into underground drinking water, but that overall there was no evidence the practice led to systemic pollution of drinking water.

The EPA study, which was requested by Congress, reviewed 950 data sources available to the agency, and included an analysis of industry-backed disclosures of the chemicals used in fracking, case studies of local communities where homeowners feared their water wells were contaminated and a review of well construction.

"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," Dr. Thomas Burke, EPA's science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development, said in a statement.

He said that given the thousands of wells drilled and fracked in the last few years, “the number of documented impacts on groundwater resources is relatively low.”

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, said the study was a validation of the safety of fracking. It said it showed existing oversight from state regulators was working.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Professor Rob Jackson of Stanford University, an expert on the environmental consequences of fracking, said those in favour of drilling would see the report as a vindication, while those opposed would see it as a whitewash.

The study will now undergo external review by the public and the agency's Science Advisory Board and is due to be finalised by next year.

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