The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Thursday for the first time that fracking — a method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells — may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.
The draft finding could have significant implications while states try to determine how to regulate the process. Environmentalists characterized the report as a significant development though it met immediate criticism from the oil and gas industry and a U.S. senator.
The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.
The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a town in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised residents not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels of hydrocarbons in their wells.
The industry has long contended fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.
The EPA said its announcement is the first step in a process of opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.
“EPA’s highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water,” said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver.
The EPA also emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area. The agency said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics.
Environmentalists called the report a turning point in the fracking debate. “This is an important first indication there are potential problems with fracking that can impact domestic water wells,” said Steve Jones of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.