Concerns raised by a USEPA Region 8 employee about the agency's recent determination that hydraulic fracturing of coal beds to generate natural gas does not threaten underground sources of drinking water have prompted congressional requests for an investigation by USEPA's inspector general.
In a 21-page letter of Oct. 8 sent to Colorado's entire congressional delegation, veteran Region 8 environmental engineer Weston Wilson took strong issue with USEPA's June 2004 report, which concluded that USEPA's initial fact-finding effort to assess drinking water risks posed by coal-bed injection wells failed to turn up sufficient evidence to warrant follow-up field investigations.
Invoking legal protections under the First Amendment and the Whistleblowers Protection Act, the 30-year agency employee asserted that the agency study "is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes" of the Underground Injection Control (UIC) provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"While EPA's report concludes that this practice poses little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water, based on the available science and literature," he wrote, "EPA's conclusions are unsupportable."
Wilson also charged that the agency "conducted limited research" in preparing the report and relied on a peer-review panel that was dominated by members who "appear to have conflicts of interest and may benefit from EPA's decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions."
His letter prompted three separate responses from House and Senate members as well as from Benjamin Grumbles, head of USEPA's Office of Water.
In an Oct. 13 letter to USEPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, Colorado Reps. Mark Udall and Dianna Degette, both Democrats, urged Tinsley "to take a hard look" at Wilson's allegations.
Noting that "development of this energy resource is accelerating in the West," the two declared that, "People's health and safety as well as overall environmental quality may be at risk."
Also urging an investigation by Tinsley was Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, who cited a Los Angeles Times report on Wilson's letter to support his position that despite concluding that the practice "can introduce numerous highly toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water," USEPA reached "the unsupportable conclusion that hydraulic fracturing poses little or no threat to these drinking water sources."
He urged Tinsley "to investigate whether political considerations improperly influenced" USEPA's conclusions regarding hydraulic fracturing risks.
Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., meanwhile, responded with an Oct. 14 letter to USEPA Administrator Mike Leavitt asking for answers to several specific questions regarding the June 2004 report. They also demanded clarification of two other relevant actions, including a December 2003 agreement with three major companies that employ the practice and a July 2004 rulemaking that approved Alabama's UIC regulations for hydraulic fracturing.
Expressing concern that USEPA "execution of the SDWA as it applies to hydraulic fracturing may not be providing adequate public health protection," Jeffords and Boxer asked whether the agency intends to incorporate any of the unregulated toxic chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing fluids into the Contaminant Candidate List development process "and if not, why?"
They also requested Leavitt to provide details of agency conversations with energy industry field engineers cited in the June 2004 report as key sources of information on hydraulic fracturing and to explain how and why USEPA choose to observe three hydraulic fracturing events for its study.
Regarding the 2003 agreement with Haliburton Energy Services, Schlumberger Technology Corp. and BJ Services Co. to voluntarily not use diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing fluids, the senators asked Leavitt to explain why it choose to rely on a voluntary agreement rather than a regulatory approach and how USEPA intends to ensure that the companies honor the accord.
They also asked whether the agency plans to determine whether state UIC programs "adequately regulate hydraulic fracturing" and to establish any national regulations or standards in the future."
In an Oct. 14 reply to Colorado members of Congress, Grumbles defended the agency's study design and process that generated the June 2004 report and stood by its finding that agency efforts failed "to identify confirmed cases where drinking water was contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluids associated with coalbed methane extraction."
Grumbles said agency officials "do not believe that any of the concerns raised in [Wilson's] letter would lead us to a different conclusion for the study."