EPA Investigates Hydraulic Fracturing Practices

Nov. 1, 2010
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked nine natural gas service companies to provide information on their practices in hydraulic fracturing, which is being used increasingly to produce natural gas from underground shale formations.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked nine natural gas service companies to provide information on their practices in hydraulic fracturing, which is being used increasingly to produce natural gas from underground shale formations.

In 2009, Congress ordered EPA to investigate if hydraulic fracturing impacted on drinking water and the public health of Americans near oil and gas wells.

EPA sent the information request to BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, PRC Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford. It asked about the chemical composition of fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process, data on the impacts of the chemicals on human health and the environment, standard operating procedures at hydraulic fracturing sites and the locations of sites where fracturing has been conducted.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "This scientifically rigorous study will help us understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water -- a concern that has been raised by Congress and the American people.

"Natural gas is an important part of our nation's energy future, and it's critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities," she said.

Hydraulic fracturing injects large volumes of water, sand and chemicals at high pressures to enable oil and gas to flow from geologic formations. The use of hydraulic fracturing has expanded across much of the country in recent years.

EPA plans to announce the initial results of its study in late 2012.

The Sierra Club said, "EPA's proposed scope of study is a good first step but it can and should go much further. This hydraulic fracturing study must be fully funded to allow an in-depth analysis of the data. We also need changes in federal and state regulations requiring this [the oil] industry to protect our air, water, and communities.

"The EPA should also study threats to geological formations from drilling and fracturing to identify ground fractures that have the potential to carry fracturing fluids to domestic drinking water supplies," the Sierra Club said.

Clean Water Action said, "We continue to get reports from Pennsylvania residents near gas drilling sites about contaminated drinking water. The EPA and the public have a right to know what chemicals threaten our water supplies."

Meanwhile, two oil industry associations have sued EPA over a statement the agency posted on its hydraulic fracturing website. EPA said that drilling operations that use diesel fuel during the fracing process must obtain a Class II permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act underground injection control permit program.

In a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the U.S. Oil & Gas Association said EPA did not require such permits in the past and EPA's statements constitute a rule that should have been promulgated under the Administrative Procedure Act;

Mine Permit Draws Fire

An EPA regional office has recommended the Army Corp of Engineers revoke its permit for Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, W. Va.

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin said the proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine "would likely have unacceptable adverse effects on wildlife."

On March 26, EPA had proposed to withdraw or restrict the use of streams to dump waste from the Spruce No. 1 mine. It raised concerns about the scale, water quality and wildlife impacts, environmental justice implications, and cumulative impact of the Spruce mine, combined with other mining activity in the area.

The Bush administration had approved the $250 million project, which would remove the tops of mountains to mine underlying coal and dump the spoil into nearby valleys. The Obama administration subsequently reviewed the decision, prompting a lawsuit by Arch Coal.

The company said, "If EPA proceeds with its unlawful veto of the Spruce permit -- as it appears determined to do -- West Virginia's economy and future tax base will suffer a serious blow."

The Sierra Club said, "This mother of all mountaintop removal coal mines would destroy thousands of acres of land, bury seven miles of streams and end a way of life for too many Appalachian families."

The Natural Resources Defense Council said, "The science shows that mountaintop removal coal mining causes harm to irreplaceable resources that cannot be minimized to an acceptable degree. It is without question that the EPA has done the right thing with regard to the Spruce mine. But more needs to be done -- mine waste dumps in Appalachian streams must stop."

Separately, EPA's independent Science Advisory Board released a draft review of EPA's research into the water quality impacts of valley fills associated with mountaintop mining. In the paper, SAB supported EPA's scientific research and agreed that valley fills are associated with increased levels of pollution in downstream waters.

Everglades Water Quality

Researchers at the University of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District have reported that water quality in Everglades National Park has improved. Their study said the overall levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have declined since the 1970s due to restoration efforts in the areas surrounding the park.

Separately, the Everglades Foundation released a Mather Economics study that concluded investing another $11.5 billion in Everglades restoration would generate economic benefits of $46.5 to $123.9 billion.

Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said, "It is clear that Everglades restoration not only produces ecological benefits, but also generates a robust economic boost to our economy. For every dollar spent on Everglades restoration, we are getting four dollars back in the form of higher home values, increased tourism and stronger fishing, boating and tourism industries."

Also relating to the Everglades, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported that concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus -- nutrients that can negatively impact aquatic ecosystems and human health -- have remained the same or increased in many streams and aquifers since the early 1990s.

Matthew Larsen, USGS associate director for water, said, "Despite major federal, state and local efforts and expenditures to control sources and movement of nutrients within our nation's watersheds, national-scale progress was not evident in this assessment, which is based on thousands of measurements and hundreds of studies across the country from the 1990s and early 2000s."

The report said that nutrient pollution is one of the top three causes of degradation in U.S. streams and rivers. It said widespread concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus remain two to ten times greater than levels recommended by the EPA to protect aquatic life.

Incineration Rule

EPA has proposed standards under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act (CAA) that would affect the options that local governments have for the management of sewage sludge.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) said nearly a fifth of all the sewage sludge produced annually in the U.S. is burned in incinerators. It said EPA's proposed new source performance standards could effectively eliminate the construction of new incinerators, and the tougher standards for existing ones could force many communities to abandon incineration as early as 2016.

The association said EPA now regulates the incinerators under regulations in Section 405 of the Clean Water Act (CWA). NACWA has urged that incinerators be regulated under Section 112 of the CAA but it said EPA, in response to a series of court rulings, developed the proposed standards under Section 129.

EPA has estimated the new standards will require most existing incinerators to install additional pollution control devices at a total capital cost of more than $200 million and annual operating costs of $100 million. The agency said some of those costs would be avoided since many public wastewater utilities would abandon incineration and send their sludge to a landfill instead. NACWA said EPA's analysis understated the costs and environmental impacts of placing sludge in landfills.

NACWA said, "Rather than encouraging upgrades to newer, cleaner incinerators paired with energy recovery that can offset a significant amount of the energy needs for treating wastewater, the proposed standards will result in many of the nation's wastewater utilities abandoning their significant capital investments and simply sending an energy-rich secondary material for disposal in a landfill.

"During a period of time where municipalities are facing enormous economic challenges and an ever-expanding regulatory landscape, it is critical for EPA to ensure its policies are environmentally and economically sound, and ensure those policies allow municipalities to manage their resources wisely and engage in practices that can maximize their resources and limit their carbon footprint."

In other Washington news:

-- USGS said that management practices have reduced the amount of water flowing in streams and rivers in nearly 90% of waters assessed in a new study. It said flow alterations are a primary contributor to degraded river ecosystems and loss of native species.

-- EPA said a toxic coal ash pond at Progress Energy's Sutton electric plant near Wilmington, NC, breached recently, spilling toxic coal ash. The agency is considering whether to regulate toxic coal ash as a hazardous substance.

-- EPA said John C. Berry & Sons Inc. will pay a $15,000 fine for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act at a oil storage and distribution site in Idaho Falls, ID. It said the facility, 800 feet from the Snake River, lacked an adequate spill prevention plan, secondary containment structures, and spill prevention training

-- The agency said Marathon Oil Co. has agreed to conduct a cleanup study for groundwater contamination at its former West Sidney gas plant near Sidney, NE.

-- Entergy Corp. and America's Wetland Foundation have reported that Gulf Coast communities could suffer more than $350 billion in economic losses over the next 20 years due to growing environmental problems. Their study said the Gulf Coast region already faces annual losses of nearly $14 billion.

-- EPA said Doe Run Resources Corp. of St. Louis, MO, the nation's largest lead producer, will spend $65 million to correct violations of environmental laws at 10 of its lead mining, milling and smelting facilities in southeast Missouri. It also will pay a $7 million civil penalty.

-- The agency proposed to add the Cabo Rojo ground water contamination site and the Hormigas ground water plume in Puerto Rico to its Superfund national priorities list. It said chemicals have contaminated wells once used to supply drinking water.

-- EPA plans to regulate mercury waste from dental offices. Dental amalgams, or fillings containing mercury, account for 3.7 tons/year of mercury discharged from dental offices. EPA expects to propose a rule next year and finalize it in 2012.

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