Federal Report Appears to Undercut EPA Assurances on Water Safety In Pennsylvania
Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:
Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.
Their stories — told first through an investigation into the safety of gas drilling by ProPublica — turned Dimock into an epicenter of what would evolve into a national debate about natural gas energy and the dangers of the process of “fracking,” or shattering layers of bedrock in order to release trapped natural gas.
But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.
Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.
The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.
The EPA had asked the ATSDR to help evaluate the health risks of its water samples back in 2011. At the time, the ATSDR warned people not to drink their water, and promised a more complete evaluation. The report released last month is that complete evaluation — an assessment of water samples taken from 64 homes during a short period in 2012 when drilling in the surrounding community had come to a temporary halt.
The fact that the contaminants were detected in water had been shared with residents in 2012. But the qualitative assessment of whether those contaminants pose a danger is new.
The new conclusions appear to call into question the EPA’s assurances, and could well reignite a smoldering controversy over whether the agency had prematurely abandoned its research into the safety of fracking in Dimock and other sites across the country. ProPublica reported in 2012 that the agency had curtailed investigations it had begun into potential water contamination in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.
The May 24 findings about Dimock also lead to an obvious question: How . . .