Federal Report Appears to Undercut EPA Assurances on Water Safety In Pennsylvania

Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.

Their stories — told first through an investigation into the safety of gas drilling by ProPublica — turned Dimock into an epicenter of what would evolve into a national debate about natural gas energy and the dangers of the process of “fracking,” or shattering layers of bedrock in order to release trapped natural gas.

But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.

Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.

The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.

The EPA had asked the ATSDR to help evaluate the health risks of its water samples back in 2011. At the time, the ATSDR warned people not to drink their water, and promised a more complete evaluation. The report released last month is that complete evaluation — an assessment of water samples taken from 64 homes during a short period in 2012 when drilling in the surrounding community had come to a temporary halt.

The fact that the contaminants were detected in water had been shared with residents in 2012. But the qualitative assessment of whether those contaminants pose a danger is new.

The new conclusions appear to call into question the EPA’s assurances, and could well reignite a smoldering controversy over whether the agency had prematurely abandoned its research into the safety of fracking in Dimock and other sites across the country. ProPublica reported in 2012 that the agency had curtailed investigations it had begun into potential water contamination in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.

The May 24 findings about Dimock also lead to an obvious question: How can two federal agencies charged with safeguarding the country’s health and environment use the same water samples and reach such different conclusions?

A spokesperson for the EPA offered a seemingly cryptic explanation: EPA was testing whether the contaminants were “hazardous,” while the ATSDR was considering whether they were safe to drink. In a statement the EPA sent to ProPublica, it described the ATSDR report as “useful information” for Dimock residents. The spokesperson promised that the agency would “consider the findings.”

Of course, the EPA, in certain respects, had already considered the findings. In 2012 — after collecting and analyzing the same water samples used by the ATSDR — the agency detected the same assortment of contaminants. It just ultimately did not describe their presence as a significant health threat. The agency eventually ended it investigation into the groundwater in Dimock. Its detailed water test results were distributed confidentially to homeowners without any evaluation of their meaning, while a general report was issued publically downplaying the danger.

At the time, ProPublica, which had been leaked a portion of the sample results shared privately with Dimock landowners, wrote that the water contained significant amounts of metals and chemicals and there appeared to be a disconnect between the EPA’s conclusions and the chemical make-up of the water. “I’m sitting here looking at the values I have on my sheet — I’m over the thresholds — and yet they are telling me my water is drinkable,” Scott Ely, a Dimock resident, told ProPublica in March, 2012. “I’m confused.”

One possible explanation is the difference in the two mandates and authority of the two agencies. The EPA — in examining the pollution in Dimock — was acting under the environmental law known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. In other words, it was trying to determine whether Dimock’s contamination qualified as a federal Superfund site requiring a federal cleanup.

Pennsylvania environment officials had already determined that a number of drilling violations by a company named Cabot Oil and Gas had likely contributed to some pollution and disturbance underground. It sanctioned Cabot, suspended their drilling permits in the area, and required them, for a time, to supply drinking water to Dimock homes. In 2012, Cabot settled with dozens of families who had sued the company for an undisclosed amount.