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Saturday, March 5, 2011

EPA finds gas drilling oversight being compromised by politics

Friday, March 04, 2011 By Ian Urbina, The New York Times reprinted in the Post-Gazette
When Congress considered in the 1980s whether to regulate more closely the handling of oil and gas drilling wastes, it turned to the Environmental Protection Agency to research the matter. EPA researchers concluded that some of the drillers' waste was hazardous and should be tightly controlled.
But that's not what Congress heard. Some recommendations regarding oil and gas waste were eliminated in the final report handed to lawmakers in 1987.

"It was like the science didn't matter," study author Carla Greathouse said in an interview. "The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way."

She said EPA officials told her that her findings were altered because of pressure from the White House Office of Legal Counsel under President Ronald Reagan. An EPA spokesman declined to comment.
Ms. Greathouse's experience was not an isolated case. More than a quarter-century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as EPA studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope, and important findings have been removed.

For example, the agency last year had planned to call for a moratorium on the gas-drilling technique known as hydrofracking in the New York City watershed, internal documents show, but the advice was removed from the publicly released letter sent to New York.

Now, some EPA scientists and lawyers are wondering whether history is about to repeat itself, as the agency undertakes a broad new study of natural gas drilling and its potential risks, with preliminary results scheduled to be delivered next year.

The documents show that the agency dropped some plans to model radioactivity in drilling wastewater that treatment plants were discharging into rivers upstream from intakes of drinking-water plants. And in Congress, lawmakers from drilling states such as Oklahoma have pressured the agency to keep the new study's focus narrow.

They have been helped in their lobbying efforts by a compelling storyline: Cutting red tape helps these energy firms reduce the nation's dependence on other countries for fuel. Natural gas is also a cleaner-burning alternative to coal and plentiful within U.S. borders, so it can create jobs.

But interviews with EPA scientists and confidential documents The New York Times obtained show long and deep agency divisions over whether and how to increase regulation of oil and gas drillers, and over enforcement of laws that some agency officials say are clearly being violated.

Agency lawyers are in a heated debate over whether to intervene in Pennsylvania, where gas drilling has increased sharply, to stop what some of those lawyers say is a clear violation of federal pollution laws: drilling waste discharged into rivers and streams with minimal treatment. The dispute's outcome has the potential to halt the breakneck growth of Pennsylvania drilling.

The EPA has taken strong stands in some places, such as Texas, where in December it overrode state regulators and intervened after a local driller was suspected of water contamination. Elsewhere, the agency has pulled its punches, as in New York. Asked why the letter about hydrofracking in the New York City watershed had been revised, an agency scientist involved in writing it offered a one-word explanation: "politics."

The EPA also studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress considered whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early study draft discussed potentially dangerous contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned "possible evidence" of contamination of an aquifer. The report's final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking "poses little or no threat to drinking water."

Shortly after the study was released, an EPA whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure. Agency leaders then stood by the study findings.
"It was shameful," whistle-blower Weston Wilson said in an interview. He explained that five of seven members on the study's peer review panel were current or former oil and gas industry employees.
Some EPA scientists say this pattern may be playing out again in the national hydrofracking study Congress will consider, as it decides whether drillers must operate under stricter rules.

Internal documents from early meetings, obtained by public records requests The Times filed and also provided by EPA officials frustrated with how research is being handled, show agency field scientists demanding that certain topics be included in the study.

Earlier research plan versions indicate that many of those topics, which field scientists cited as high priorities, were to be included. But many concerns were cut from the study plan in a version made public Feb. 8.

In interviews, several agency scientists and consultants, declining to be named for fear of reprisals, said the study was narrowed after pressure by the industry and allies in Congress, as well as budget and time constraints.

Agency spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the plan remained broad, and that the agency had taken additional steps to investigate drilling impacts, including recently issuing a subpoena against the Halliburton energy services firm to force it to provide fuller disclosure about its drilling operations.
Though the EPA has emphasized the importance of openness and public involvement in the study, internal e-mails show agency officials' concern about the reaction if the public were to learn of its narrowing scope.

The natural gas drilling boom is forcing the EPA to wrestle with questions of jurisdiction over individual states and how to police the industry with extensive exemptions from federal law.

The stakes are particularly high in Pennsylvania, where gas drilling is expanding quickly, and where EPA officials say drilling waste is being discharged with inadequate treatment into rivers that provide drinking water to more than 16 million people. Drillers throughout the nation are watching Pennsylvania to see whether the federal agency will overrule the state's decisions on how to dispose of drilling waste.

The central question: Should drillers in Pennsylvania be allowed to dump "mystery liquids" into public waterways?

Under federal law, certain basic rules govern sewage treatment plants. At their core, they say two things: Operators must know what is in the waste they receive and must treat this waste to make it safe before discharging it into waterways. But in Pennsylvania, these rules are being broken, some EPA lawyers say.
"Treatment plants are not allowed under federal law to process mystery liquids, regardless of what the state tells them," one EPA lawyer explained in an internal draft memo The Times obtained. "Mystery liquids is exactly what this drilling waste is, since its ingredient toxins aren't known."

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