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Congress speaks out about EPA’s Pavillion report

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HOST INTRO: The E-P-A has released its preliminary report on groundwater contamination near the town of Pavillion.  The environmental agency’s findings -- that chemicals found in the aquifer are “likely” associated with hydraulic fracturing -- could escalate the emotionally and politically-charged debate over domestic energy production.  From Washington, Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports on what Wyoming lawmakers and environmental advocates are saying about what happens next.

ELIZABETH WYNNE JOHNSON: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, samples taken from deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicate the presence of chemicals such as glycols and alcohols that are “consistent with” gas production and the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing.  The EPA’s three-year study in Wyoming found benzene in concentrations well above the standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and high levels of methane, as well. 

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis’ initial response to the report:

REP. CYNTHIA LUMMIS: We’ve all known for years that the water’s bad.  We have to get good water to the people of Pavillion that are affected by this.  So first and foremost, we should be concerned about them.  But secondly, it is important to find out what’s causing it. 

AMY MALL: People across the country have been saying for a long time that they think groundwater contamination is related to hydraulic fracturing, and there’s been a lot of debate about it because the proper scientific investigations were never done.

JOHNSON: Amy Mall is a senior policy analyst who specializes in oil and gas development at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  What the EPA had to say in this report about the origins of the chemicals found in the water samples near Pavillion… had never been stated in these terms:

MALL:  Ultimately the EPA concluded that some of them were related to hydraulic fracturing. 

JOHNSON: The Canadian energy company Encana disputes the agency’s preliminary finding that the region’s groundwater contamination was “likely associated” with hydraulic fracturing… noting that people in and around Pavillion have long complained about contaminated well water. 

The next step is to bring in a third party to assess the E-P-A’s work, and Congresswoman Lummis has an idea for who that should be.

LUMMIS: We need some additional peer review on their conclusions and what drew them to their conclusions.  And I think it’s appropriate that that come from the Wyoming DEQ.

JOHNSON: That would not be the conventional way to go.  According to Mall of NRDC, peer review is typically done by academic scientists who have the appropriate credentials and who are financially independent – meaning they don’t work as consultants for the industry and are free from even the appearance of bias or potential conflict-of-interest.  She doesn’t think the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality should be the source of a peer review in this case. 

MALL: It’s not standard practice and it would not be the appropriate route to go – because the state’s been responsible for what’s been going on in Pavillion as the regulator, and clearly many things went wrong… so the state has a very vested interest in defending itself and its past oversight.

JOHNSON: Among those wanting more testing: Wyoming governor Matt Mead.  And he has the backing of Wyoming Senator John Barrasso.

BARRASSO: I support Gov. Mead and what he’s doing in Wyoming specifically related to this.  [I’ve] reviewed the report from EPA.  We want to make sure the people in that community have safe water.

JOHNSON: In fact, that’s pretty much all Barrasso has to say on the matter.

BARRASSO: I agree with our governor’s approach and we’re going to be supporting him.

JOHNSON: He’s not saying for now what he thinks about the E-P-A’s methodology or findings.

BARRASSO: I’m looking forward to seeing what the governor’s able to find.

JOHNSON: The E-P-A itself has not characterized its own findings as 100-percent conclusive.  But according to NRDC’s Amy Mall, the true significance of this report is that it has implications beyond the specifics of “fracking.”

MALL: The bottom line is that EPA found a lot of very sloppy, irresponsible practices in Pavillion that led to groundwater contamination.  I don’t think anybody can disagree with that – and that’s what needs to be fixed, whether it’s Wyoming or any other state in the country where oil and gas production is taking place.  The regulations and the enforcement and oversight have not kept up with the expansion of the industry and all the new technologies that are being used.

JOHNSON: The draft report has now entered a 45-day public comment period   After that, comes a 30-day window for the peer-review panel to review the draft… and to review the E-P-A’s methodology.

For Wyoming Public Radio I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson in Washington.