A recent EPA Environmental Appeals Board ruling and a northern Pennsylvania well water study from the Duke University researchers are creating perception headaches for the fracking industry in the Marcellus.

Common in the west, there are but a handful of underground injection control (“UIC”) wells in the Marcellus region – perhaps just 5 in Pennsylvania.  In early June, EPA Region 3 had approved permits for two additional wells in northeast Pennsylvania near the New York border, but late last month the EAB remanded them back to the agency.  (In re: Bear Lake Properties, LLC.)  “The record does not support a finding that the Region considered appropriate and accurate site-specific information in reaching its permit decisions.” 

Some of the of the reporting on this decision characterize the decision as a major set-back.  (See “EAB Decision Could Raise Bar For Permitting Fracking Wastewater Wells” Inside EPA, subscription site).  The real issue, however, was one of sloppy agency work and poor initial surveying work by the applicant, Bear Lake Properties.  Five of the six claims raised by the petitioners, including an alleged failure to adequately consider earthquake potential and potential impacts on drinking water, were rejected. 

Initial surveys of the area around the two sites had identified no water wells within a one mile radius around one, and five within the other.  In response to citizen comments, EPA required a supplemental survey, in which Bear Lake discovered 14 and 17 wells, respectively.  Other discrepancies, including a mismatch between the original and supplemental list of well locations and those located in New York state, all were left unaddressed by the agency in its final decision granting the permit.  

The Region had a responsibility to ensure that accurate data regarding the number and location of drinking water wells within its selected area of review were identified and considered.  The record before the Board is insufficient to support a finding that the Region satisfied its responsibility in this regard. . . .  Indeed, the Region has failed to clearly articulate what data it relied upon in making its determination

In the end, the only error was a failure to make certain that the record accurately reflected the information found, an error the company believes will be easily remedied.  As a side note, the EAB found the problem one of the EPA’s own making.  While the original requirements set the area of impact/zone of endangering influence at one-quarter mile, in which all wells had to be identified and mapped, Region 2 reviewers extended that to one mile when they asked for the additional survey.  It does not appear any of the newly discovered well are in the quarter mile area of impact.  

Another development in this region is a new Duke University study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by the same team that last year reported on methane migration into water wells.  The last one received significant media coverage, as well as significant criticism.  The latest suggests that naturally occurring pathways could have allowed salty, mineral-rich fluids from the Marcellus shale formation deep underground to migrate up into shallow drinking water aquifers.  This study did not tie the occurrence of these deep earth minerals to fracking activity.  “The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region.”  Nor were drilling chemicals, even in areas with resource extraction activities, discovered. 

However, according to one of the paper’s authors, Robert Jackson, in an interview with ProPublica, “The biggest implication is the apparent presence of connections from deep underground to the surface.  It’s a suggestion based on good evidence that there are places that may be more at risk.”  Press coverage, such as this story from Business Insider, have picked up on this line:  “[A] new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that fracking for natural gas under Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania may lead to harmful gas or liquids flowing upward and contaminating drinking-water supplies.” 

But one of the study’s peer reviewers, Terry Engelder of Penn State, so disagreed with the value of the report that he took the unusual step of publicly releasing his review.  Chris Tucker, of Energy in Depth, a pro-industry group, also took serious umbrage with the report.  Noting that the study did not find any contamination of wells by fracking fluids, Tucker lamented: 

Still, though, while the paper’s findings are benign, and the authors’ insistence that development activities had nothing to do with the detection of salt in water abundantly clear, we’ve seen this saga play out before.  Already, activists are pointing to the report as evidence that fracturing fluids may someday migrate up to drinking water sources, denying the facts of science, a history of experience and even the views of the researchers themselves.  And reporters, having spotted the words “hydraulic fracturing” and “contamination” in the abstract, are now deciding whether they even need to read the rest of the paper before filing on it.

The controversy over fracking and waste water disposal, in the Marcellus formation and elsewhere, is not going away soon.  At least in terms of waste water, some relief should come soon as two new treatment plants are set to come online in August.