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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The EPA Draft Report of Groundwater Contamination Near Pavillion, Wyoming: Main Findings and Stakeholder Responses

Peter Folger
Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy

Mary Tiemann
Specialist in Environmental Policy

David M. Bearden
Specialist in Environmental Policy

On December 8, 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft report on its investigation of groundwater contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. EPA had initiated the investigation under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in response to citizen complaints in 2008 about domestic well water quality. On June 20, 2013, EPA announced that it would not finalize the report but would defer to the state of Wyoming to assume the lead in investigating drinking water quality in Pavillion. The EPA draft report indicated that certain constituents in groundwater are consistent with some of the constituents used in natural gas well operations, including the process of hydraulic fracturing. EPA claimed that its approach to the investigation best supports the explanation that different compounds associated with hydraulic fracturing have contaminated the aquifer used for domestic water supply in the Pavillion area. EPA also stated that its approach indicates that gas production activities have likely enhanced the migration of natural gas in the aquifer. EPA did not appear to conclude that there was a definitive link to a release from the production wells, nor to the constituents found in domestic wells in shallower parts of the aquifer.

Because the draft report linked groundwater contamination in Wyoming to activities related to hydraulic fracturing, it had raised concerns about hydraulic fracturing practices in general. Some stakeholders took issue with some of the findings in the draft report. They questioned the scientific validity of EPA’s contention that “the explanation best fitting the data for the deep monitoring wells is that constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing have been released into the Wind River drinking water aquifer at depths above the current production zone.” In contrast, some environmental organizations cited EPA’s findings in calling for more stringent regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Stakeholder groups commissioned independent assessments of EPA’s draft report and released their respective assessments in May 2012. An assessment commissioned by an industry organization disagreed with EPA’s findings, whereas an assessment commissioned by four environmental organizations supported the agency’s findings.

EPA’s draft report also has received attention within Congress. On January 20, 2012, 11 members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking that the EPA investigation be considered a “highly influential scientific assessment and that any related, generated report is subject to the most rigorous, independent, and thorough external peer review process.” In the House, the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on February 1, 2012, to examine EPA’s findings. Concerns about the status of EPA’s report and the scientific validity of its findings have continued into the 113
th Congress.

In response to concerns about the adequacy of the original data, EPA worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and the state of Wyoming to collect additional samples from two deep monitoring wells installed by EPA. On September 26, 2012, the USGS released two reports regarding their sampling program for the two wells. The USGS provided raw data from only one well because the second well did not yield enough water to collect representative samples. A news report cited an EPA spokesperson stating that the USGS sampling results were generally consistent with findings from the earlier EPA draft report. An industry spokesperson stated that there was nothing surprising in the USGS results, based on a preliminary examination of the data. Now that EPA has decided not to finalize its report, whatever additional actions may be taken at the Pavillion site would appear to depend on the outcome of the investigation of the state of Wyoming and what continuing role EPA may play in a supporting capacity.

Date of Report: July 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R42327
Price: $29.95

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