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EPA concludes fracking does not lead to ‘widespread’ problems with water

A long-awaited EPA study released Thursday found that hydraulic fracturing has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water.”

That prompted some to call for a reversal of the state’s fracking ban. In fact, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins called on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to do just that within an hour of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement.

“I fully expect Gov. Cuomo to reverse his previous decision to ban fracking, which was based upon controversial scientific studies and made to appease far-left environmentalists,” Collins said.

Fracking opponents, though, found enough in the study to back their position that the controversial drilling method contaminates drinking water.

“Like hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, this shows that New York was right to ban fracking,” said John Armstrong of Frack Action.

Six months after New York banned fracking because the state Health Department found “the potential risks are too great,” the EPA’s findings rekindled the white-hot, decadelong debate in New York State.

Four years in the making and completed at the request of U.S. Congress, the EPA’s study was billed by officials as “the most complete compilation of scientific data to date.”

The study concluded that water quality problems have occurred at specific well sites, but called the problems few and far between.

“Based on available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the U.S. are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources,” said Tom Burke, science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “In fact, the number of documented impacts to drinking water resources is relatively low compared to the number of fractured wells.”

But risks to water do exist in specific situations, the study acknowledged, especially when drillers make mistakes.

It cites specific instances of spills, leaks and contamination, including the blowout of a well in Bradford County, Pa., where about 10,000 gallons of flowback fracking water spilled into a tributary of Towanda Creek, a designated Pennsylvania trout fishery.

Other examples showed that wells not properly cased can allow gas to seep into water supplies, which is more likely when fracking occurs in land formations containing drinking water. In addition, inadequately treated fracking wastewater can be harmful if discharged into drinking water supplies, as can spills of such wastewater and spills of hydraulic fluids used in the fracking practice.

The EPA also found fracking can lead to water withdrawals in areas where water is scarce.

Noting that the study cited such risks, environmentalists said the EPA research shows that Cuomo was right to ban fracking in the state.

“An initial look at the summary tells us what we already know,” said Brian Smith, associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, “which is that fracking poses a number of risks to drinking water.”

“Avengers” actor Mark Ruffalo, an advisory board member of Americans Against Fracking, added, “Today’s EPA fracking water contamination study confirms what both the oil and gas industry and the Obama administration have long denied – that fracking poisons American’s drinking water supplies.”

EPA officials said the study – a scientific assessment using more than 950 sources of information – was limited to identifying vulnerabilities in the water cycle that involves fracking for use as a tool to improve the industry, not to make any judgments about it. What’s more, it was not designed as a human health risk assessment, Burke said.

“This is a study of how we can protect our water resources,” Burke said. “It’s not a question of ‘safe or unsafe.’ ”

Burke called the draft study “a foundational report” that, for the first time, provides a comprehensive look through fracking’s entire water cycle from start to finish.

It will next be subject to scrutiny by the EPA’s science advisory board, which will provide an independent review of the findings.

Will the EPA’s findings impact the state’s ban?

“It should. The DEC knows there have been no major issues,” said Ernie Rammelt, president of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. “Does that mean anything’s going to happen in New York State? Probably not.”

Cuomo’s office did not comment on the EPA report.

A statement from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, however, called the state’s review broader.

“The EPA’s review focused on impacts to water resources related to high-volume hydraulic fracturing, while the state review was much broader – examining impacts to air, water, public health, ecosystems, wildlife and community character,” said Tom Mailey, a DEC spokesperson. “Our review identified many potential significant adverse impacts.”

The DEC’s own report on fracking is anticipated in the near future, Mailey said.

Proponents like Collins and U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, a Southern Tier congressman, as well as industry and business leaders, renewed their demands for lifting the state ban.

“Now that the EPA has confirmed what top scientists have said all along, that fracking is safe and has no widespread impact on drinking water, we are calling on Commissioner (Joseph) Martens and the state DEC to rescind the temporary ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State,” said Heather C. Briccetti, president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State.

Briccetti said an environmental statement performed by the state four years ago is more than adequate to address concerns raised by the EPA.

“The state should adopt those permit conditions and allow fracking to move safely forward,” she said.

Erik Milito, a director at the American Petroleum Institute, said the EPA’s report only bolsters the oil and gas industry’s claim.

“Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices,” Milito said.

Meanwhile, Neil Vitale, a Steuben County organic dairy farmer who’s fought for drilling on his land with others from the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, remained less optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything,” Vitale said of the EPA’s findings.

“It’s not just a health and water issue anymore,” Vitale said. “They think they can power this state with solar power and wind turbines, but it hasn’t worked out in any other country that’s tried it.”

Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski and Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com