The American Tradition Institute (ATI), along with the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic (FMELC), recently filed two requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel the EPA to release correspondence received from administration sources potentially directing the Agency in its investigation of groundwater contamination it attributed to drilling operations near Dimock, Pennsylvania. The information that was the catalyst for the FOIA requests was provided to the petitioners by two separate career employees of the Agency, and allegedly indicates that the Administration was intervening in the investigation based on electoral considerations and election year politics.
The information provided by the EPA employees allegedly includes specific directions to a field team working near Dimock, PA regarding what and where to investigate. The source alleges this interference coincides with the 2012 election campaign and the Administration’s need to sustain the economic benefits generated by the hydraulic fracturing boom. One of the sources also provided screen shots from the e-mail account of ‘Richard Windsor,’ a false-identity account known to belong to former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, showing that a group called ‘HQ-Dimock’ was created to facilitate communication on the topic. The group’s membership includes numerous attorneys and members of Jackson’s inner political circle.
One of the FOIA requests seeks certain e-mails, text messages, or instant messages of three specific EPA field staff members that are to, from, or reference the White House or EPA headquarters in Washington. The second FOIA request targets e-mails that were part of the ‘HQ-Dimock’ discussion group. Both requests cover a seven month period from December 1st, 2011 through June 30th, 2012.
While the conservative-leaning petitioners are seeking to use the information to suggest that the Obama Administration played election year political games, various environmental organizations will likely use the information to argue that EPA buried a conclusion that hydraulic fracturing caused groundwater contamination in Dimock. In reality, neither constituency is entirely correct.
While improper drilling and casing may have contributed to groundwater contamination in Dimock, there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing caused the contamination. Indeed, the state authorities reached the same conclusion, which is also 100 percent consistent with the 1.2 million well/60-year history of hydraulic fracturing in the United States.
That EPA’s investigation at Region 3 was subject to oversight from EPA headquarters in D.C. or from the White House is not surprising and not per se evidence that politics drove the investigation. EPA has a command-and-control organization structure and is itself directly answerable to the White House. Numerous types of regional activities, but especially high-profile investigations, are routinely coordinated through headquarters and the White House. The fact is that the Dimock incident was at the time, and remains, a high-profile and divisive issue in the hydraulic fracturing debate. That it received top-level interest is entirely understandable and, depending what we learn from the FOIA request, may have been entirely appropriate.