Environmental Protection Agency scraps plan for scientific study of Wyoming fracking

Water pollution review given over to state officials

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it is dropping its longstanding plan to have independent scientists review its finding that hydraulic fracturing may be linked to groundwater pollution in central Wyoming.

The EPA is standing by its findings, but state officials will lead further investigation into the pollution in the Pavillion area. The area has been a focus of the debate over whether fracking can pollute groundwater ever since the EPA's initial report came out in late 2011.

"We stand behind our work and the data, but EPA recognizes the state's commitment to further investigation," agency spokesman Tom Reynolds said in Washington, D.C. The EPA will let state officials carry on the investigation with the federal agency's support, he said.

Wyoming officials have been skeptical about the theory that fracking played a role in the pollution at Pavillion, but Mr. Reynolds expressed confidence that the state could lead the work from here. He described the shift as the best way to ensure that Pavillion-area residents have a clean source of drinking water.

Even so, industry officials who have been doubtful about the EPA findings all along praised the change as confirmation of their view that the science wasn't sound. "EPA has to do a better job, because another fatally flawed water study could have a big impact on how the nation develops its massive energy resources," Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a release.

Richard Garrett, energy and legislative advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council in Lander, said he believes that Thursday's announcement shows that the EPA is finding it more difficult than initially expected to come to grips with fracking's full environmental effect. He noted that the EPA is pushing back other work aimed at gauging how energy production may pollute groundwater. "It's not surprising to me that they're kind of taking a secondary role in rural Pavillion," he said. "It looks to me like it might be a resource issue. That goes to the federal budget, I suppose, and EPA administration."

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boosts the productivity of oil and gas wells by pumping pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals down well holes to crack open fissures in the ground. Environmentalists have voiced concern about fracking causing groundwater pollution for years, but the practice has significantly boosted oil and gas production in regions such as the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Marcellus Shale underlying Eastern states.

The EPA's 2011 report marked the first time the agency publicly linked fracking and groundwater contamination, causing a stir on both sides of the issue.

The federal agency began seeking nominations last year for experts to serve as peer reviewers for its draft report and has extended public comment periods on the report three times since it came out -- twice last year and again this year. Each extension delayed the peer-review plans.

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