A burst of celebrity, the actor Mark Ruffalo, punctuated an incredibly dull Environmental Protection Agency teleconference on Thursday devoted to editing a report on safe drinking water and “fracking” oil and natural gas wells.
That’s not unusual for the actor best known for playing The Incredible Hulk, who appeared at numerous protests over fracking, but his call-in to an otherwise staid scientific panel is also a sign of environmentalists’ displeasure with the EPA’s view of fracking and drinking water safety.
In June, the EPA released a five-year, 1,000-page report that found fracking has “not led to widespread, systemic impact on drinking water resources in the United States.” Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the horizontal drilling and cracking of rock layers rich in natural gas and petroleum, a technology that in the last decade has revolutionized the U.S. energy market, with more than 25,000 wells drilled from 2011 to 2014.
The EPA report found that badly cemented fracking wells, wastewater spills, or drilling accidents could contaminate nearby drinking water. But the report also noted that, so far, there have been no signs of fracking fluids injected thousands of feet underground migrating upward from rock layers to contaminate water.
Industry groups such as the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) applauded the report when it came out, calling it an exhaustive clearing of its safety record. “We are very pleased with EPA’s findings,” said MSC president Dave Spigelmyer in a statement.
But environmental groups reacted with dismay. A number of studies, homeowner complaints, and the 2010 documentary Gasland (directed by Josh Fox, who also called in to the panel teleconference), have linked fracking to contamination of nearby water wells. Such concerns formed the backdrop of the complaints to the panel at the teleconference on Thursday.
“Just just because it doesn’t affect everyone doesn’t mean that its consequences are acceptable,” Ruffalo told the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), a group of outside scientists led by David Dzombak of Carnegie Mellon University, who the agency convened to critique its June report. “Documented instances of water contamination are high enough to represent a clear and present risk.”
In an earlier November meeting, SAB members had raised concern over EPA finding no evidence of “widespread” water contamination, despite reports of tainted wells from Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Texas and Colorado.
“The key word in the EPA report is ‘widespread’ — that explains a lot of the differences between the agency and environmental groups,” Stanford’s Rob Jackson told BuzzFeed News.
Jackson has led studies that found rare cases of water contamination within a less than a mile of fracking sites in Texas and Pennsylvania. “We’ve seen a number of places where homeowners had problems. At the same time, most people have no problem.”
The EPA did not conduct promised before-and-after evaluation of water quality near freshly drilled fracking sites initially promised in 2010, the science panel had also noted, adding to uncertainty about its conclusion of fracking safety.
“The environmental groups do have legitimate points,” Jackson said. “On the other hand, step back and there is no evidence of a SuperFund site associated with this kind of drilling activity, which is the kind of pollution that really gets a lot of the attention from EPA.”
Ruffalo, who founded the environmental group Water Defense because of reports of water contamination in Dimock, Pennsylvania, was one of 36 homeowners and activists who called into the last hour of the panel’s four-hour teleconference. Sharon Wilson of the environmental group Earthworks complained that industry non-disclosure agreements were “gagging” homeowners with contaminated wells, keeping them from reporting problems.
Ruffalo echoed her complaints, saying “the fact that these people have been barred from sharing their stories is the antithesis of the American democratic ideal.”
Much of the SAB teleconference was devoted to disagreements over word changes in the SAB draft report, interspersed with crackle and static from phone line feedback. At one point Dzombak apologized after he disappeared from the call, which happened when he tried to cut off one overtime speaker without realizing his mute button was on and hung up by accident.
The scientific advisory panel is expected to produce its draft critique next month. Substantial criticism usually generates a reply from the environmental agency.