FRAC Act could leave some rural wells unprotected

Legislation to restore federal regulation of fracking would not protect households that draw water from private wells because such wells are not overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fracking opponents warned this week.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a method of collecting methane (natural gas) from shale deposits by blasting the gas out of tiny pores using large volumes of water, sand and chemicals.

During the Bush-Cheney administration in 2005 Congress granted hydraulic fracturing an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption is named the “Halliburton Loophole” in recognition of the oil and gas service company previously headed up by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Reports of groundwater contamination and health problems in gas production areas around the country have spurred efforts to close this loophole.

In the House Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Maurice Hinchey, (D-N.Y.) have introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act).

This bill would restore EPA power to require permits for the underground injection of chemicals used in fracking. It also requires fracking companies to disclose the chemicals that they inject.

An identical Senate bill was sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“As we recognize the need for energy independence and alternative sources to power our nation, natural gas is an important economic driver and a critical bridge fuel,” DeGette said in a release as she announced the reintroduction of the bill.

“However, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the process for extracting natural gas from our land is done safely and responsibly. The FRAC Act takes necessary but reasonable steps to ensure our nation’s drinking water is protected, and that as fracking operations continue to expand, communities can be assured that the economic benefits of natural gas are not coming at the expense of the health of their families.”

But some fracking opponents say that restoring EPA’s authority to regulate fracking is inadequate protection for rural well users because EPA rules for handling the underground injection of chemicals are unclear about whether and how surrounding private wells must be taken into account.

According to EPA, the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the agency to provide safeguards so that injection wells do not endanger current and future underground sources of drinking water (USDWs). By regulation, a USDW is defined as an aquifer or portion of an aquifer that:

Supplies any public water system or contains a quantity of ground
water sufficient to supply a public water system, and

Currently supplies drinking water for human consumption, or

Contains fewer than 10,000 mg/L total dissolved solids and is not an exempted aquifer.

In an article for un-natural, the website for the Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group in New York state, Anne Marie Garti writes that these rules are not clear about how the EPA decides whether an aquifer contains enough water to supply a public water system.

The FRAC Act would remove the hydrofracking exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but the proposed bill will not protect most of the land area of the US because many aquifers, especially in the northeast, do not flow into a PUBLIC water supply of 25 + users, and whether they would be capable of supplying municipal water in the future is open to interpretation. The required flow rate is not defined anyplace, and needs to be so that there is a uniform standard across the US.

Specifically, the Underground Injection Control (UIC) section of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) needs to include a definition, or standard, of the following phrase: “sufficient quantity of ground water to supply a public water system”

“Sufficient” needs to be defined in the FRAC Act so that the flow rate of individual homeowner’s water well or spring is covered. It should be a federal standard, not open to different interpretations by Courts in every region of the EPA. The Atlanta or Georgia region of EPA uses a 1 gallon per minute flow rate.

EPA did not respond to a request for comment on Garti’s concerns but did say that the Safe Drinking Water Act does give the agency “imminent and substantial endangerment authority in certain circumstances, even when there are no specific other regulations which apply.”

According to EPA, approximately 15 percent of Americans rely on private drinking water wells.

In Michigan, where natural gas exploration companies bought exploration rights to 392,000 acres of public land last year, 1.12 million people are served by private wells, according to the state Dept. of Environmental Quality.

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