Dim Duo Done in by Dimock Data [updated 6:46PM with comment from Pennsylvania DEP]

by William Yeatman on March 19, 2012

in Blog

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Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency conceded that preliminary lab results from samples taken from wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania indicate that drinking water there has not been contaminating by hydraulic fracturing drilling.

The news is embarrassing to both agit-prop film director Josh Fox and EPA.

For the fabulist Fox, the Dimock lab results are yet another official rebuke of his terrible, fact-free, Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland. Already, Colorado state officials debunked Fox’s false claims that groundwater in Colorado had been poisoned by hydraulic fracturing. Now, a federal agency is suggesting that Fox again misidentified the cause of one of his fracking cause-célèbres—he has long accused the gas industry of contaminating well water in Dimock with toxic chemicals.

For EPA, the Dimock results are egg on the face. That’s because the Agency had decided to test the Dimock water over strong* objections from Pennsylvania officials. In early January, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer wrote a letter asking EPA not to second-guess the State’s handling of allegations that gas drilling had contaminated well water in Dimock. Secretary Krancer warned EPA that it would be acting despite the Agency’s possessing only “rudimentary” knowledge of the situation. In a critical response to the letter, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson insinuated that Pennsylvania was failing to ensure the protection of its own citizens. EPA’s preliminary results suggest that Pennsylvania is capable of ensuring safe, responsible drilling, without the Agency’s oversight.

*[Updated 6:46 PM--I received a nice email from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection informing me that the situation is more complex than I had thought. While the DEP does feel EPA has overstepped its bounds, the Department is very much willing to work with EPA to ensure that Dimock water is safe to drink. I've crossed out the word "strong" in the second sentence of the paragraph above because it is too strong a modifier: They disagree, but it's not combative. Here's the official DEP press statement, which demonstrates the nuance of the matter.

DEP just received EPA’s voluminous package today and we are reviewing it. We will take more time to fully evaluate all the information and data that EPA has presented, which it says is behind the action it proposes taking and the requests it is making. Our review, so far, tells us that EPA does not seem to have presented any new data here. More than a year ago, DEP’s enforcement action addressed this issue and ensured funds were set aside to resolve the water quality issues for these homeowners. Funds were set aside for each homeowner to have a water treatment system installed. The system would address parameters EPA references here, including arsenic and manganese, and would provide water that meets and exceeds safe drinking water standards. We agree that additional sampling should be conducted in Dimock and we are actively working with EPA to conduct additional sampling at the affected homes and at 57 other residences.]

Notably, EPA was very discreet about its announcement. According to the Scranton Times-Tribune, “Agency officials hand delivered test results to residents whose wells were sampled during the week of Jan. 23 and will meet again with the families individually to review the results and answer questions.” The newspaper mentions an EPA “statement,” but it must have been in response to a solicitation for comment by the reporter, because EPA has issued neither an announcement nor a press release about the matter on its website.

EPA’s tight lipped approach to divulging information from Dimock stands in stark contrast to the Agency’s trumpeting of controversial, preliminary lab results suggesting that hydraulic fracturing “likely” contaminated water in Pavillion, Wyoming. Despite the severe public relations ramifications of the Pavillion press release (it was immediately seized upon by enviros as “evidence” that fracking threatens the nation’s water supplies), EPA issued it: (1) without having peer-reviewed the lab results and (2) in the face of substantial criticism about methodology leveled by Wyoming officials.

EPA’s divergent media strategy in Dimock and Pavillion demonstrates a striking inconsistency regarding hydraulic fracturing. When preliminary lab results are good for the gas industry, they are hand delivered to a handful of people; when preliminary lab results are bad for the industry, however, they become the subject of a press release that is rushed out the door before it is properly vetted.

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