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Safe drinking-water regulations ‘unneeded?’

“In the early days of settlement,” wrote Tennessee’s former state historian Wilma Dykeman, “one of the most heinous crimes a man could be guilty of was the despoiling of another man’s water supply. But, odd as it seems, when the people began to cluster together in towns and cities and the despoiling became really large and ugly, it began to be overlooked.”
In the early days of the first term of the previous US Administration, a task force headed by the then Vice President convened secretly, over months, in the White House. Its recommendations, issued as a National Energy Policy report by the President in 2001, exempted certain industrial oil production methods from any constrictions under the nation’s environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In the “hydraulic fracturing” process of extracting oil or gas trapped in tiny bubbles of shale, mixtures of undisclosed chemicals are pumped underground, directly through aquifers, under high pressure.
With deep underground rock formations cracked apart, oil or gas may flow more freely and their extraction volume increase. Yet many cases of surface and groundwater contamination have been documented from at least a half-dozen states where extraction via these methods has been ongoing.
A bill (dubbed the “FRAC Act”) introduced in both Houses of Congress last year, as readers of this column may recall, would make oil and gas company operators disclose the identity of the chemicals injected underground, now concealed as trade secrets, and make them abide by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
Given the critical importance of clean water to quality of life and human and environmental health, one might have expected the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act to be passed into law quickly.
Yet, having drawn quite the ire of the industry, which brands removal of the SDWA exemption as an “additional layer of (unneeded and cumbersome) regulation,” the bill has not moved far along in the Congress.
Of our own state’s Members only one so far (the Memphis District’s Representative) seems to hold of sufficient consequence the impartial application of the Safe Drinking Water law, so as lend co-sponsorship support to the bill.
Under request from a Congressional Conference Committee, the Environmental Protection Agency three months ago announced commencement of a study of hydraulic fracturing and its impacts on the water resources.
With the President’s support and a modest $4.3 million funding request (FY11 proposed budget), this critical issue for safety of the nation’s drinking water is to be evaluated in a transparent and robust manner, by the agency’s independent Science Advisory Board.
The study plan is available for public review and comment, as will be its recommendations later on.
Good science is the best guarantee for policy that does not overlook potentially serious problems but addresses them, containing or preventing public-health and environmental risks from them.
One therefore hopes for stronger support from the Congress, and full funding of the President’s budget request, for this important study undertaking by the EPA.