Last week, something significant happened. A federal jury found a fracking company in PA responsible for the contamination of water wells used by two families and awarded those families a combined $4.24 million.
Sounds straightforward, right? Well, the other part of the story is that 16 other wells were polluted by Cabot Oil and Gas’s operations (as determined by the state), and as many as 44 residents originally were a part of the lawsuit. Most of those plaintiffs settled their claims in the suit in 2012. In fact, that’s generally what has happened over the past decade with fracking-related lawsuits. Not only do the companies settle up with plaintiffs, but they also incorporate confidentiality agreements and various clauses in the settlements that prevent those individuals from speaking about their situations and that prevent much of the content of those lawsuits from being made public.
If you take some time to read about the situation, it’s actually quite absurd how the legal process ultimately led to much information being ruled inadmissible. Ultimately, the lawsuit became more about the citizens having property damaged and the company being a personal nuisance, rather than the actual water pollution from their fracking operation.
The narrative of this lawsuit is important because it provides a very clear public example of water pollution associated with fracking and of a company continually denying responsibility even after a guilty jury verdict and even after significant hindrances on the legal process. Thus far, the fracking industry has continued to assert claims that fracking is safe, primarily due to their ability to keep lawsuits quiet. Many citizens and advocates for clean water were waiting for the EPA’s report concerning fracking’s impact on drinking water resources. The thought was that the EPA would set the record straight.
The EPA came out with the report last June on fracking’s impact on drinking water resources, and although the report details many cases of pollution and significant data gaps, it did not provide the desired result. Instead, the executive summary stated that EPA “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources.” This lone statement, of course, was extracted out by industry to confirm their claims, though the facts of the report clearly illustrated that fracking can and does impact water resources in a number of ways. The unfortunate reality, though, is that citizens continue to fight the battle against fracking water pollution.
“The SAB is concerned that these major findings as presented ambiguously within the Executive Summary are ambiguous and appear inconsistent with the observations, data, and levels of uncertainty presented and discussed in the body of the draft Assessment Report.”
The SAB’s concerns highlight the contradictions within EPA report. For example, the EPA claimed that severe data gaps existed for the study but also that of data that did exist, there were hundreds of examples of drinking water contamination, and yet, the EPA then claimed there was no evidence of widespread or systemic impact. The result of the review process will likely mean the EPA will have to revise the draft fracking report, but it won’t fix the situation in which we, the American people, currently find ourselves. Current loopholes, put in place by the Federal Energy Act of 2005, protect the industry from environmental regulations and necessary oversight and prevent collection of needed data for protecting resources (particularly, water). Then, lawsuits, the most compelling examples of actual pollution, are often kept quiet through settlement agreements. The following comment, in a recent piece about fracking and water pollution issues by a law professor from University of Connecticut, best describes the predicament:
“The settlement will be a secret. We won’t know how much was paid, they will be barred from talking about the case,” said Richard Parker, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, while referring to what’s been happening in litigation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. “We are seeing a lot of these secret settlements,” he said in an interview with ThinkProgress, “which allows the oil and gas industry to say, well see, we’ve never actually been found guilty.
“We won’t have data until a regulatory structure is put in place that requires companies to generate that data, and that regulatory structure is really not in place,” he said.
It’s not just about the actual fracking process itself either. There are issues with how the wastewater and associated waste product is disposed of, most recently illustrated by illegal dumping of radioactive fracking waste here in landfills in Estill County. The dramatic spike in earthquakes in Oklahoma in recent years has been correlated with the deep injection process to get fracking waste-water “out of sight, out of mind.”
The imagery available on the earthquakes from waste-water injection processes clearly illustrate to the average person that there is a high correlation between locations of quakes and locations of injection wells. The relationship is so strong that it pushed Sierra Club and others to take legal action against several companies in order to slow the waste-water injection. The action was necessary due to Oklahoma’s regulatory agencies moving too slowly to appropriately deal with the problem.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s data shows a significant increase in crude oil production over the past 10 years from fracking.
Alternatively, due to economic conditions recent activity and production of natural gas has declined.
But make no mistake – fracking is not going away. We here in Kentucky have been witness to the chaos that ensues from the location of potential new oil and gas reserves for hydraulic fracturing, and the subsequent industry posturing to prevent public opposition from mounting. Last year, a working group recommended updates to Kentucky’s oil and gas drilling regulations and the state later adopted those recommendations. But that was the first update of those regulations in over 20 years. We need more protections and assurances.
Until the government does more, it is citizens who continue to bear the brunt of the burden for protecting their drinking water and local surface water quality from fracking impacts. In the least, this jury verdict regarding two families in Dimock joins a short but growing list of public examples of the industry’s failures to protect our water resources and failure to claim responsibility. Let’s hope it will also continue to empower and spur residents to push our government to act on the loopholes and protections that value industry over the current and future health of the American people and our environment.