The Facts Behind EPA’s Dimock Two-Step

In Dec., EPA says water’s safe; in Jan, with no new data, it says it’s not – EID lays out what’s known and what’s not

Set aside all the stage props, backdrops and inflatable scenery deployed as part of the continuing saga known as Dimock, and you’re left with a pretty basic question – albeit one to which very few outside media have gone out of their way to find a legitimate, science-based answer. Quite simply: Is the water up there safe?

On Dec. 2, 2011, EPA declared that it was, sending an email to several Dimock residents indicating that the data it had reviewed from state-certified laboratories and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) “does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat.” On Jan. 19, despite having no new data, EPA reversed its position, sending a letter to the agency’s hazardous site cleanup division demanding “immediate action” to protect public health and safety.

Predictably, those opposed to the development of affordable, clean-burning natural gas were quick to applaud the news — with ProPublica even declaring in a 38-point headline that EPA’s change of heart constituted “evidence of fracking contamination,” even though EPA never actually said that (and couldn’t have, since it gathered no data) and state experts consistently having shown it to be false. So once again, amidst all the pomp, circumstance and fanfare, we’re left with a couple questions: For starters, what do the data actually indicate is in the water? And second: Is there actually any evidence suggesting that any of it got there as a result of natural gas development?

In an effort to answer the first question, EPA released a series of memos and letters last week – the list is available here — laying out in specific terms what was found in wells tested by DEP on and near Carter Rd. But sift through the dozen or so documents posted on the website, and eventually you stumble across two memos of significantly greater value than the rest. The first is a memo written by technician Donna Ioven to Richard Fetzer, EPA’s “on-scene coordinator” in Dimock. The second is a 10-page letter from Mr. Fetzer to his bosses at EPA.

As you can see by clicking here, the Ioven memo is short, sweet and to the point: not even two pages in length, and almost all of it focused on identifying which specific components were found in which specific residential water wells. Of the eight wells for which DEP collected data, Ms. Ioven writes that four of them contained compounds of potential concern: Resident 4 had high levels of sodium and manganese; same for Resident 6; Resident 7 had manganese; and Resident 8, arsenic. These were the four households selected by EPA for water deliveries.

The Ioven memo is supposed to serve as the factual, technical basis for Mr. Fetzer’s letter to EPA’s Dennis Carney – capturing and reporting what is known and what isn’t, and passing that information up the food-chain for further consideration. But here’s the problem: Fetzer’s letter doesn’t look anything like Ioven’s memo. The latter, as mentioned, is a simple recitation of facts and figures. The former, unfortunately, reads more like a brief filed by a plaintiff’s attorney – attempting to defend EPA’s decision to intervene by going out of its way to link each of the components found in wells to drilling activity (and on several occasions, looking quite silly doing it).

Take, for instance, Mr. Fetzer’s explanation for how arsenic may have found its way into one private well: suggesting in his letter it could have gotten there from “the use and effects of drilling fluids.” But spend about 10 seconds researching the issue online, and you find that arsenic isn’t even used as a component of drilling and/or completing a well. So where did it come from? According to the U.S Geological Survey in the video below (4:00):

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi5DfRy01vE

Overwhelmingly, the evidence that we have suggests that the arsenic we see in groundwater originates from natural sources.”

Unfortunately, this overwhelming evidence appears to be news to Mr. Fetzer. The Fetzer letter also makes sure to mention that “glycols” were found in one well, once again attempting to blame that on “drilling fluids.”

Glycols are a major ingredient of antifreeze, and much like other industrial processes, are sometimes used in very small percentages in an oil and gas context to prevent scale build-up in the pipe. Thing is, Cabot has already confirmed that it didn’t use any glycols when it drilled and completed its wells in the area more than two years ago. And actually, the one well in which glycols were detected came in at such low levels that EPA didn’t include that household among the four it chose to receive water deliveries. As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Tests also found glycol, which is used in antifreeze, at safe levels, and 2-methoxyethanol, a solvent, which does not have an established toxicity level. Those houses are not receiving shipments of water.”

So, after all that, apparently what we have is an issue with sodium and manganese. According to Mr. Fetzer, manganese is “known to be a constituent of some specialized drilling fluids.” Which fluids are those? And did Cabot actually use any of them in Dimock? Fetzer doesn’t say, probably because Fetzer doesn’t know. So we posed the question to the operator itself; the answer we got back was a resounding “no.” But, as we were reminded, neither sodium or manganese is considered a health hazard by EPA. In fact, EPA doesn’t even have what’s called a “maximum contaminant level” (or MCL) for either of those two. According to one federal report:

High levels of … manganese do not pose any known adverse health risks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not set maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for … manganese in the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. Secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCL) recommended in the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are set for esthetic reasons and are not enforceable by EPA.”

So there you have it. Boil it all down, condense it, strain it, and reduce it to its irreducible parts, and what you’re left with is a decision by EPA to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars supplying water to people who don’t need it — a decision made less than two months after the agency deemed the water to be safe, using the same exact data that it cited last week in arguing the opposite. Of the four households set to receive water, three of them have elevated levels of two things that EPA itself doesn’t consider hazardous to health. And the fourth? According to federal scientists, that well has something in it of which “overwhelming evidence” indicates a natural origin. Not drilling a well.

But you know what really gets our goat? According to an updated study released by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania last year, more than 40 percent of private water wells tested in the state don’t meet basic health and safety standards for drinking water – for reasons that have nothing to do with oil or natural gas. Considering that more than three million folks across the state rely on wells for their water, that means more than one million Pennsylvanians could be drinking water today that’s unsafe.

All of which begs the question: If this thing weren’t about politics, why isn’t EPA supplying clean water to any of them?

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Comments

  1. J. Walter Scrapple says:

    The publicity you guys are getting seems to worsen each week.

    My advice?

    Dump Shepstone and hire somebody who at least can create an positve “image” even when we all know you’re peddling crap -a lot like tobacco or CDO’s.

    Maybe David Geffen will do it…you guys have the dough.

    You spent twenty times more than the antis.

    Best regards,

    J. Walter

  2. David says:

    First off your statement is not true about the EPA email, if you read the email (which your link does not work) The email is based upon a cursory review of the information provided by the PA-DEP . This email does not have any data associated with it and states nothing about contamination levels.

    Second the EPA also is examining the contamination of aromatic compounds found in one well by an independent testing laboratory. Which you neglect to mention in your article.

    Third arsenic is a serious contaminant and it is the duty of the EPA to investigate and resolve this issue. Your attempt at negating this by stating that it comes from natural sources sidestepped the fact that it is in their well and that this needs to be mitigated. Unlike the PA-DEP which did nothing the EPA is taking steps to resolve this issue by providing water.

    Lastly you state Center for Rural Pennsylvania last year, more than 40 percent of private water wells tested in the state don’t meet basic health and safety standards for drinking water. The report stated that the vast majority of issues were with regard to bacterial contamination (total coloforms and other tests for Bacterial contamination in drinking water) and not well chemistry. This is a classic case of a logical fallacy of correlation does not imply causation or in other words by saying that this study shows there is a problem with 40% of wells must mean that these wells have the same problems.

    Again EID authors try and use hyperbole and distortion to convince the general public. your article just shows the true ethics of EID and how it would rather distort the data then allow science to work out the real issues. (I bet EID will not bother to even post this comment!)

  3. Tom!
    The comments have not been a fair exchange!
    You people at EID have a team dedicated to the facts!
    You do not use if,might,could, possible,what if,presume,suppose,suspect,reckon,firm believer,should,maybe in your reports!
    How can anyone use their imagination and promote FEAR to fill their coffers!
    The Sky is falling has held its ground for a long time. Here is fact!.. In 1999 ….Y2K was a wrap of the 1943 Idiom “The Sky is falling”. Now since 2006 the next big fear generator ! ”Fracking” This one MIGHT take a little longer for the people to figure out… But the good news for me, it adds and boosts my 1943 hit “The Sky Is Falling” Staring me Chicken Little! I was only 12 then a child actor being used. I have taught many lessons and will continue.
    I am 81 now and thought about retirement but it looks like this Chicken MIGHT be famous again!
    Sincerely,
    Chicken Little

  4. There seem to be several oversimplifications or misstatements in this post.

    First off, arsenic is found in barite which is used in drilling mud. Arsenic in relatively high concentrations is also found in Marcellus shale itself. These concentrations are more than adequate to pollute groundwater if the well isn’t properly cased or cemented.

    Secondly, the EPA has two standards for manganese. The first is a secondary MCL which is 50 ppb. The second standard is the health advisory standard and it’s at 300 ppb. The health advisory standard is because manganese has been shown to cause extreme neurological effects (its exposure is associated with Parkinson’s disease, for instance), including much lower IQ for childhood who drink polluted water. The Dimock water wells of concern had manganese at several times the health advisory level.

    What I didn’t see in the EPA documents was the lab test results for these wells before drilling and completing nearby wells.

    Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] We have already raised questions about U.S. EPA’s efforts in Dimock, Pa.  We won’t reiterate these question but we did take a closer look at the history of contaminants that EPA’s correspondence claimed could be related to natural gas development necessitating continued water deliveries.  To help provide context on elements in the groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania, and Susquehanna County, it is helpful to review historical facts and reports of groundwater quality by organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and others. [...]

  2. [...] question produce water exceeding EPA’s primary safe drinking water standards.  Instead, it relies upon secondary standards having to do with the color, taste or other aesthetic characterist… but do not indicate human health [...]

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