Home > Frac > The EPA is Destroying Their Credibility

The EPA is Destroying Their Credibility

December 28, 2011

On December 14th, I wrote a piece titled What the Release of the EPA Study in Pavillion, WY Does Prove: It Isn’t that Fracturing Contaminates Groundwater.

I suggested that the EPA be either dismantled or overhauled because of what I felt was an irresponsible release of a “Draft Report” wherein the EPA outlined that their findings linked Hydraulic Fracturing to groundwater contamination. I believe my reasons in calling for their end are growing more and more founded.

Their report was the “feather in the cap” for the majority of Fractivists who then supported the EPA report with a loud and collective “We have been saying this all along! Hydraulic Fracturing contaminates groundwater! People are in danger!”

This Fractivist response was entirely predictable and for me, as a Hydraulic Fracturing advocate and former chemist, their response was nothing out of the ordinary, it was par for the course. It was also very representative of their ignorance to the importance of and need for adherence to Standard Operating Procedures.  The EPA did a horrible job of providing context (which O&G advocates and companies were forced to do) and for being transparent about their findings.

You see, our battle is not with Fractivists.

Our battleground burns in the court of public opinion and ultimately with those who create the policies that govern O&G production, you know, the people who rely on the EPA to present them with accurate data.

The public is only now becoming as aware of Hydraulic Fracturing as we have been for years and they need accurate information to make an informed decision.

I need to preface what I am about to write by gaining some credibility in your eyes. I was a chemist, so I know all about the importance of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), laboratory protocols, and the importance of accurate results that can be reproduced and thereby verified. The lab I worked at was/is ISO 9000/9001 certified and registered. Lab rats will know what that means (it means the lab was legit by the way…our mounds of paperwork proved that).

What I do know is that the majority of the public is not so informed. I know this may be a bit lengthy but I would like for any who read this to gain an understanding about how laboratories work rather than imagining them as the landing pad for mad hatters and nerds.

The EPA’s release is a little too disconcerting for comfort.

I want to emphasize this. Their draft report on Pavillion, WY might as well be about the existence of unicorns because it most certainly is not scientifically credible.

Before I continue, I will attempt to explain what an SOP is and why they are important in non-technical terms.

In the world of laboratories, there are SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for EVERYTHING. SOPs are the procedures that exist for the sole purpose of rendering accurate results consistently. They tell the scientist what he/she needs to do in order to discover data.

An example that has served me well in the past is ubiquitous and generally well received. Think about the food labels on everything you eat or drink.

They have percentages on those labels don’t they?

I am looking at a Coke can right now that tells me this Coke has 140 calories, 0 grams of fat, 45 mg of sodium, 39 grams of sugar, and 0 grams of protein per 12 fl oz.  The FDA mandates that food products must list their ingredients so that the public can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to consume 39 grams of sugar per 12 fl oz of Coke.

It is important that these percentages be accurate. In the last several years, many American consumers have steered away from full flavored soft drinks because of the amount of sugar present in the original formulas. Instead of regular Coke, people ingest Diet Coke or Coke Zero as an alternative because we know that regular Coke has 39 grams of sugar per 12 fl oz.

The FDA not only mandates that food companies have to divulge what ingredients are present in their foods but they also have to divulge what percentages of those foodstuffs are present in the final product by serving size. We are going to use our 12 fl oz can of Coke as our example.

This is where SOPs come in. Imagine with me now.

I receive samples (Batch A, B, and C) from the FDA who informs me that they would like for me to quantify, by percentage, the amount of sugar, sodium, protein and fat present in 12 fl oz of Coke. They send me ten, 12 fl oz cans representative of each batch.

Another lab also gets samples (Batch A, B, and C) from the FDA that asks for the same results. The FDA has sent them all of the same volumes.

So, there I am standing in the lab, with my approved nitrile gloves, in my approved lab coat, with my approved safety goggles. What will I do?

I will go the manual where the SOPs for discovering sugar/sodium/fat/protein from a liquid are present. I will look for exceptions to standard tests to see if there are any special notes I need to consider (high acidity for instance) that would render my results inaccurate.

Before I ever get around to testing, I have a lot of equipment to grab from the stock room. Each test will require different equipment that will either have to be sterilized after testing or discarded. I look in the SOP manual to see what equipment will be needed for my protein test because I can’t do all of the tests at the same time.

But, before I get around to the stock room, I need to calibrate all of the equipment I will be using for this series of protein tests and then I have to sign off on it. This way, if my scales or precision equipment are out of spec, I can either service the equipment (if I am certified by the manufacturer to do so) or have it serviced so that it is fit for work.

I calibrate the scales, I calibrate the ovens, I calibrate the analyzers and record any and everything that I just did.

Let’s say, the for the sake of illustration, I have a machine that will take the entire can of Coke and analyze the protein content.

(This machine does not exist by the way, the moisture from the Coke would have to be removed, recorded, and accounted for accurately because H20 constitutes a large portion of the volume but water has no nutritional <protein> value and I can’t just pour a Coke into my $500,000.00 machine; so, I would have to accurately determine, using my freshly calibrated ovens, which of my ovens, using the SOP for moisture removal, is appropriate for removing moisture content without chemically altering the rest of the Coke’s content thereby rendering my protein results useless. So, I find that for this test I will be using the 105 F oven and for how long. I zero my scale to include the sterile <so I don’t contaminate the sample> dehydration pan into which I will pour the Coke. I pour the Coke, with a sterile dropper <so I don’t contaminate the sample> to the SOP dictated volume needed and place it in my oven for the SOP determined amount of time. I must also check the desiccant in the desiccator to make sure that it is has not been compromised by moisture so that when I remove my dehydrated Coke from the oven for protein testing, I do not reintroduce moisture thereby rendering my calculations and previously recorded weights/volumes useless.)

That little aside is more what the process looks like but for this illustration, I will again use the non-existent, test-a-whole-can-of-Coke machine.

Even this fake machine needs to be calibrated.

So what I do is take four different samples (my controls) whose protein content has been verified a million times by control labs. I inspect my machine and all of the gas feeds to make sure that the machine has been properly maintained.

I then look to the SOP on machine maintenance and see that I need 12 fl oz of each sample to run through the machine.

I again, weigh each sample to the appropriate weight, and prepare each for process taking care that I do not contaminate the samples.

The four controls are Water, Milk, Tea, and Orange Juice.

I will have to run each of the controls at least three times to ensure the machine’s accuracy AND my results will all have to register within half a percent of each other AND half a percent of what my standard book tells me my controls should show.

So, once I have run 12 samples just to ensure the accuracy of my machine, I can put the can of Coke in for testing. I must now run Batch A of Coke multiple times with my standards (controls) run intermittently in order to prove that my machine is still running in spec. I must also do this for each batch to ensure Coke is up to snuff on their consistency and quality control.

So, if all of my equipment is calibrated and if all of my controls run within the allowable range of fluctuation, if I follow my SOPs and can reproduce my results given the same samples and equipment, AND I have a long trail of paper work that documents every step I took, all volumes, weights, calibrations, calculations, if my testing matches the results of the other lab, then it could be conclusive that my data are accurate. But if I miss anything in the lab setting, if I contaminate the Coke with something, weigh something incorrectly, my equipment isn’t calibrated, then the constants I needed present to ensure my work was accurate were off and my data can be skewed.

This is an example of one test. I would still have to test for sugar, sodium, and fat, each with their own SOP and equipment.

If my lab can’t produce quality data, then why should the FDA use me?

The FDA won’t use a lab that produces inaccurate data. Two lab’s findings were responsible for nailing a Georgia peanut plant for shipping products after testing positive for Salmonella.

The FDA relied on independent results. Maybe the EPA needs to follow suit instead of assuming culpability for their apparent agenda.

I may say that Coke only has 19 grams of sugar per can. Folks may drink it thinking “Hey, Coke only has half of the sugar it used to.” but that won’t alter the inaccuracy of my findings. Coke still has 39 grams of sugar per 12 fl oz.

All of industry is responsible and accountable to the EPA. The EPA has the right to penalize, fine, shut down (if necessary), pull permits etc. all in the name of protecting the environment just like the FDA does should food companies falsify their findings.

Independent analysis removes this problem.

This begs a question.

They are a government agency and we should be able to trust our government agencies like the EPA. To whom is the EPA accountable? Are they accountable like the Fed is accountable?

If that is the case, then they are not accountable at all.

As a government agency, they are responsible to the people to be for the people, right?

I thought that was the deal. We trust them, they look out for us based on accurate results. They guarantee accuracy.

The Star-Tribune‘s energy reporter, Jeremy Fugleberg reports that the EPA abandoned their own mandated protocol. It was comforting to know that they immediately recognized the problem and retested everything to guarantee accuracy…oh, wait, no they didn’t. They stood by the results after admitting their deviations. They deviated from the SOPs and have the audacity to stand by their conclusions. That is ludicrous.

EPA used outdated samples when a “Maintenance of the Laboratory Floor” delayed testing at the Golden, Colorado lab.

“The EPA also found contamination in pure water control samples, didn’t purge the test wells properly before gathering samples and didn’t mention in its report whether it tested water carried by a truck used in well drilling, say officials with the Wyoming Water Development Commission who, because of their expertise on water wells, reviewed the EPA’s publicly available information. ‘They didn’t follow their own protocol they would’ve required of other people doing this same type of work,’ said Mike Purcell, director of the water development commission staff, which does water planning and infrastructure development in the state.”

I wonder what would have happened if no other organization had checked out the validity of the EPA’s findings. Would they have just let them ride? Yep, they are still attempting to let them do just that.

“EPA officials don’t dispute the samples went past due for testing, but they stand by the report’s overall conclusions, which suggest hydraulic fracturing might be responsible for Pavillion’s tainted water.”

What?

“That flawed analysis contributed to half of the EPA’s testing of its deep monitoring wells. While the private drinking water wells got additional testing, the deep wells that provided critical data for the EPA’s conclusions were only tested twice, in October 2010 and April 2011.

Usually such reports are based on many more samples, Clarey said.

“Statistically you need to have 8-10 data points at a minimum,” Clarey said. “To only have those two — it’s not really a scientifically valid study.”

To properly test such water wells, they must be first purged three times to make sure fresh water from the surrounding formation flows in for testing, Clarey said.

“We ‘re not sure they produced out all the water that may have seeped out of the formation during the drilling process or well development,” Clarey said. “So we’re not even sure they’re getting an accurate formation sample.”

The EPA data indicates the agency only flushed the wells one-quarter of the amount needed, he said.

“Which is a no-no,” Clarey said. “That can invalidate the results and force someone from a regulatory agency to go back” to re-test.

Clarey also pointed out a photo in the draft report that shows a water truck that provided water for drilling the well. The report doesn’t indicate if the truck was tested for any contaminants before its water was used.

Also, several samples of distilled water placed with the well water samples showed some contamination — contamination that shouldn’t be in the samples and could indicate the well samples are marred, Clarey said.”

Wait, what?

I haven’t even mentioned that there are four pages of questions that Wyoming officials have asked that the EPA has not answered.

Jokes swirl about the hypocrisy of the government. On more than one occasion we’ve heard “If the government were held to the same standard as the population, they’d all be in prison.”

If a referee lab published the same results that the EPA released, and the EPA determined that the standard operating procedure including notable deviations from mandated practices, then the EPA would undoubtedly throw the findings out. The lab could potentially lose its certifications. What if the lab is an EPA lab?

In the land of laboratories, credibility is all a lab has. That is why so many of them strive to gain ISO 9000/9001 certifications. It means that all they do is documented and that SOPs are followed which in turn ensures the accuracy of their data. The EPA’s sort of irresponsibility is why labs do not gain this certification.

It boils down to a simple problem. They can’t admit a mistake that should embarrass them. They deserve to be embarrassed if they can’t produce or reproduce accurate scientific data based on extensive testing.

It almost appears that the EPA attempted to downplay their own irresponsibility. They still stand by their conclusions although the premises on which they’ve founded their conclusions are faulty.

Herein lies the problem. The EPA isn’t acting like they are neutrally gathering the best information available. They seem to be intentionally accepting data that is technically impermissible. Let me simplify.

Their study isn’t scientific but they released it publicly anyway?

Why?

Do they intend to destroy their own credibility?

If the Oil and Gas Industry stepped out and published haphazard results based on samples typically impermissible for testing, the EPA would have a field day.

We would be condemned for altering data to satisfy our own wants.

We don’t get to have a field day when the EPA publishes spurious findings. Why? Is it because they are incapable of making serious errors? Is it because they are the environmental arm of the government?

To whom are they accountable?

There are SOPs for a reason. If they choose to circumvent the practice, then why perform a study or publish a report at all? Deviating from standard operating procedure is simply unacceptable. I don’t intend that to mean that in the way your father or mother would comment on bad behavior.

I mean, the scientific community literally can not accept it. It was no study at all.

Given the reaction of various news outlets, there is a reason for concern that the EPA already “drank the Fractivist Kool-Aid” and jumped right in with environmentalist causes.

Their controls could have been contaminated. If the baseline is altered then how than their be accurate comparisons to determine contamination percentages?

Who works at the EPA? I want that job. Please pay me to do everything incorrectly rendering all of my work useless with zero accountability. The concept is mental.

I was a chemist for several years. If I had decided to deviate from the SOP to render results, I would have probably been chewed up and spit out before being told to do the test over again multiple times, with controls in an acceptable range, to ensure the accuracy of my results.
The EPA doesn’t want to because it may prove bad practice so they don’t and meanwhile, we tax payers are forced to kick up so that they can exist.
Dismantle the EPA. I am tired, upon penalty of law, of being forced to fund an organization that is so broken that they no longer adhere to their own mandates.
Natural Gas is a “bright spot” in our weak economy. We need to get this right by allowing the science to dictate our reaction. The EPA currently seems unwilling to allow for this to happen because the science may prove conclusively that Hydraulic Fracturing isn’t a threat to drinking water.
As of now, they appear to hope that Frac’ing is a problem when the science doesn’t agree.
No more limping along the road on a flat tire. Change the tire so we can scoot with LNG in the tank, to a prosperous future.
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  1. December 28, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    You are so correct. The FDA could give the EPA an excellent baseline for SOPs. Loved your post.

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