How the Media & EPA Mislead the Public on Fracking
Environmental activist Josh Fox, who was recently kicked off Fox News, says a recent EPA study contradicts itself on fracking safety
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
It took five years in the making, but the Environmental Protection Agency verdict on fracking is finally out. In the study, the EPA stated, “the assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” But some experts are saying there is direct evidence in the report pointing to the contrary.
With us to discuss this controversial new study is Josh Fox. Josh is an American film director and environmental activist best known for his Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland, and Gasland Part II. Thank you so much for joining us, Josh.
JOSH FOX, DIRECTOR, ACTIVIST: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Josh, you were recently on Fox News where you got into a bit of a argument, I guess one could say, over whether water in Delaware County was unsafe for consumption even before fracking began. Let’s take a look at what ensued.
ANCHOR: The joke in the area that if you turn the tap on you could light the water.
FOX: Listen, brother, that is absolutely not true.
ANCHOR; That was way before fracking.
FOX: And in fact–
ANCHOR: What? Are you kidding?
FOX: –I am your neighbor. I am your neighbor.
ANCHOR: I was there, I bought the property 12 years ago.
FOX: Listen, this EPA report does not premier in the middle of a vacuum. There are 470 scientific reports right now, peer-reviewed, that state that fracking contaminates groundwater. That it’s bad for the air. It’s bad for public health. And all of these–.
ANCHOR: Interesting that I’m wrong about lighting the tap water before fracking ever appeared.
FOX: You are. You are absolutely wrong.
ANCHOR: I’m not, because I did it myself.
FOX: Because what we’re talking about–.
ANCHOR: I did it myself.
FOX: I do believe you are lying right now.
FOX: Because the point–yes, I do. On your own show.
ANCHOR: The interview is over, young man. The interview is over. I am not lying, I did it myself. Thank you. Goodbye.
FOX: Okay. If you said, if you said to me earlier that you would not want fracking in your own neighborhood–.
ANCHOR: You’re out of here, son.
FOX: –it is irresponsible–.
DESVARIEUX: So Josh, you essentially get kicked off the set of Fox News. But we don’t want to focus too much on that. I want to really focus though on the study, and in particular how the mainstream media has really jumped on this story, and is saying that this study has really exonerated fracking. But you say the contrary.
FOX: Well, it’s not just me that’s saying the contrary. I want to bring up one thing about that Fox news segment. I don’t know which section you showed, because I can’t hear it. But you know, he–the anchor confessed to me before we went on the air, he said, well, I have property in Upstate New York. In Delaware County. And I would never allow fracking on my own property. And I just thought, well, what? Because the segment was, that he was leading, was about how he had interpreted the EPA statement and many people in the media had, not only in Fox News but Washington Post, Newsweek, and many other outlets, to say that this meant that fracking was safe for groundwater. And actually, Media Matters, a media watchdog, issued a report that said no, actually, that’s not what it says and the media is getting it wrong. And this is what I was doing.
And what I want to talk to you about today is how this is a trend within the Obama administration’s EPA. You have very, very hardworking scientists within the EPA. You have great field people who go out and whose mission in life is to go to people who are fearing contamination and are in a bad environmental situation and say we’re going to try to help you. And they go out and they do that. And they do science and they find results, and they conduct massive investigations. And then at the head office you see these press statements start to get issued that are completely contradictory from what the findings actually indicate.
DESVARIEUX: Okay, let’s talk about some of those findings. Can you give us some concrete examples from within the study itself?
FOX: In the study–let me go back and let’s talk about the context of the study. Within the study itself, the report is actually quite damning about fracking. They find 25 percent of water wells examined in the specific place that they went to in northeastern Pennsylvania to be contaminated. They find a third of the wells that they look at in Texas to be contaminated. And these are on PDF sheets that are onesheets that are within the report. I actually sent them to you, so maybe you can link to them. But they are very hard to find when you look at the EPA report. You have to sort of negotiate your way through to these five different areas. There’s one about North Dakota, there’s one about Texas, there’s two about Pennsylvania and there’s one about Colorado. In every instance they show fracking fluid or methane migration or something that’s gone wrong with groundwater.
So we see that–I mean, and that’s a lot of areas around the United States, right. Let me go back, though, to say that this study, the EPA study, was started in 2010. It was demanded by Congress, a Democratically controlled Congress, right, a very different moment in time. And it was demanded by citizens. And hundreds of citizens took place, including myself, in the scoping process. The EPA went out, they did hearings in New York and Pennsylvania and Colorado and Texas, and asked citizens, what do you want to see in this study? We all came forward, we each had two minutes. There were hundreds of people at each of these hearings. And we all said we wanted air, we wanted water, we wanted service water and groundwater. We wanted to look at impacts of chemical pollution in the air. We wanted to look at health. We wanted to look at land scarring. We wanted to look at all the–industrialization of neighborhoods. We wanted to look at all these different aspects of what happens when fracking comes to town that people would get so angry and upset and concerned about.
EPA narrowed all of that down to just groundwater. So they refused to look at air. They refused to look at health. Already this study is way too narrow, and the public is upset. Now, over the past two years what happened was around 2012, EPA summarily dropped three marquee investigations into fracking that are featured quite prominently in the film Gasland Part II. I spent three years tracking EPA on the ground in Pavilion, Wyoming, in Weatherford, Texas, and in Dimock, Pennsylvania, all places which eventually showed very, very open and shut cases of fracking water contamination at the groundwater level.
DESVARIEUX: Is this the, that scene of them lighting the water on fire, that–.
FOX: Yes. They light water on fire in two of those three places. In one of them they burn a plastic sheen off the top of the water. So if you watch Gasland Part II you’re going to get a very concrete and succinct lesson on what’s happening with the Obama administration EPA.
In Dimock, Pennsylvania EPA came out with a press release after several months of studying the water there. The press release said Dimock’s water is safe. Meanwhile, at the same time they had sent private letters to the families up and down Carter Road, which is featured in Gasland, and it said don’t drink your water.
And the only reason I knew this was because these people were my friends. I called up EPA and said, are you going to make me drive to Dimock right now and get those water tests from those people? Send me the water tests. They wouldn’t release the water tests to the press. They would not release the tests. And they said, we’re not giving them to you. So I drove three hours to Dimock, got the water tests. Sure enough, the water was contaminated. So we came out with a pushback about that.
But this is what’s happening. The Obama administration is pro-fracking. They’re pro-fracking. They’ve been trying to frack–I mean, all over the regulations have been incredibly, incredibly weak. This majority of this fracking across the United States is under Obama’s watch. It’s been six years, now. And they have done nothing to step this back. And when they have done things to step it back, then they go ahead and short the effort out, and that’s what I’m about to explain to you.
So in the EPA report you actually have EPA confirming that fracking causes groundwater contamination. You have headlines running in Canada that says fracking caused contamination. But what the EPA press office did was say, oh, they’re moving the goalposts. They say oh, it’s not widespread. Well, that’s ridiculous, because this has been not a widespread study. This is a study whose focus is very, very narrow. Because not only did they drop the air and they dropped the health, what they did was in 2012, around 2012-2013, the industry said, we’re not going to cooperate with your study at all. We’re not going to let you onto any of our well sites, we’re not going to let you examine our operations. The EPA didn’t push back on it. They said, okay. So they dropped all new case studies for this report. They dropped all prospective studies for this report.
So this report, over the five years from when it was issued in 2010 till when it came out–I mean, when it was initiated in 2010 to when it came out, was winnowed down to something that was almost nothing. There were no new case studies, no air, no health. And what the EPA did was they went to places that, those PDFs that I mentioned, the [incompr.] in Colorado and PA and Texas, that they knew stuff was already happening so they could include them within the report while the industry also then goes look, look at everything else.
DESVARIEUX: Wait Josh, I have a question, though. When they do admit to fracking causing groundwater contamination, what specifically in fracking are they blaming it on? Is this human error? Is this–.
FOX: Well, there’s all different reasons. And this is important, right. There are many, many pathways to contamination from the entire process of fracking and drilling. There are surface spills. You can have trucks that spill on the ground, that get into a stream or that penetrate down into the soil. You have actual fracture contamination, where a fracture might hit an existing fracture, shoot up into the aquifer.
The most common, however, are the failures of the actual well bore cement itself. Because the well basically is a steel pipe drilled down through the ground that punctures through the aquifers down to lower layers where you have oil and gas. And that metal pipe is surrounded by cement. It’s about an inch of cement. It’s a very small barrier. But that inch of cement has to be impervious and travel up to two or three miles without having a crack in it. So if you walk down the street on the sidewalk you’re going to see cracks in the cement everywhere you go, because cement cracks. That’s what it does. It’s not a perfect seal. If you had pipes made out of cement in your bathroom sink you’d have leaks and problems all the time.
So what we know is that those cracks in the cement that are imperfect cause methane migration and they cause other kinds of seepage problems that are coming through the pipe. You understand? If you have a straw that you’re sucking oil through your glass of water, you want that straw to not let the oil come out into the water glass. That is exactly what’s happening in the ground, and we know that that’s happening all over the place.
So the EPA did look at that and they discovered, lo and behold, that there are several problems with the well. And if they actually did this within the context of the industry [science], you’d see that these problems are widespread and systemic.
DESVARIEUX: Josh, are EPA staff members or advisors questioning the validity of the study?
FOX: Yeah. Actually, on Sunday the EPA itself issued a kind of a retraction clarification statement. On Thursday they issued this statement that says no widespread and systemic contamination. Which is crazy, because that’s not possible within a report that’s not wide in focus. So what it actually shows is the widespread contamination of the EPA by the oil and gas industry, and I’ll get to that in a second. But what this is is the EPA on Sunday then said oh, we noticed that all these people reported this wrong and said that fracking was safe. They issued a kind of very mild, weirdly doublespeak thing that says no, we don’t have the data to come to those conclusions. You’re getting it wrong.
And they did that on a Sunday afternoon. So give me a break. On Thursday, the world reports this. On Sunday, nobody’s on the job. So you don’t have that retraction making the same kind of headlines. This is expert manipulation of the media cycle, if what you want to do is try to give fracking a clean bill of health in spite of the fact that you have signs to the contrary.
DESVARIEUX: Yes. You briefly mentioned the fracking industry, and I want to get to that. We often mention the influence of the fracking industry in persuading these type of conclusions. For you, can you speak the specific examples of where the EPA has been influenced by the fracking lobby in relation to studies like this one?
FOX: It’s another link that I sent you, and hopefully you’ll post that. There was a study by Greenpeace. They FOIA-ed, they did a Freedom of Information Act request to documents within this fracking study and they found concrete documents with dozens of examples of undue influence of the fracking industry in the report. So you can look that up. And these are everything from oh, we don’t want to do this part of the study, or you should focus in this way. And these are documents, right, this is not speculation or hearsay. This is not the general sense of oh, there’s lobbying and a lot of money in politics in America, which is true. These are actually concrete examples that you can look at and see.
And in the case of Dimock, I mentioned to you where the EPA came out with a [desk] statement that said fracking is safe and meanwhile they were contacting citizens telling them not to drink their water. Some of the field scientists on the ground there blew the whistle on that. They released reports. They said we were told to hold back because they were afraid that this would hurt President Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.
DESVARIEUX: Oh, wow.
FOX: And these are quotes. This is not speculation. Again. And if you want to see the whole sad story, and it is quite a thrilling roller coaster ride of emotions, watch Gasland Part II. This is history repeating itself, right. I spent three years watching this government find fracking contamination, and then find ways to cover it up and find ways to seed it into the media that made it seem like it wasn’t really happening.
However, at this point in time it’s much harder to do that. Because we are in a place right now where we have 470 peer-reviewed scientific studies that show the harms of fracking. And those are air, those are earthquakes, those are groundwater contamination, service water contamination. Radioactivity, public health. One came out just yesterday that associates fracking and low birth weight. If you are a mother living within a certain range of a fracking well or fracking sites, you have a higher percentage of having a baby that has low birth weight. That it’s influencing the fetus developing in the womb. That just came out yesterday, I think it’s the New York Times.
DESVARIEUX: Josh, let’s turn the corner and talk about the future of fracking in light of this study. I mean, Maryland recently joined New York in terms of statewide bans on fracking, while Oklahoma and Texas have placed a ban on banning it. So how would this study, considering this is the EPA, this is a federal agency, affect future efforts to keep fracking out of people’s backyards?
FOX: Well, I think that this is something that the industry’s going to point to time and time again and say look, the EPA said this. The EPA said that. You know, the fracking industry has an enormous amount of money, and EPA just did its citizens an enormous disservice. They just did an enormous disservice to the people of the United States. Fracking is contaminating our groundwater. Fracking is creating a public health crisis.
And as you see, so much of this is determined at the political level, right. In New York and in Maryland, in the East where you have relative progressive governments, you see science and sanity working. In Texas and in Oklahoma where you have Republicans who are very pro-oil and gas, who are ignoring the science, they are trying to tamp down citizen reaction.
Now, listen. What’s interesting about this is it’s not the citizens in Texas. This is a reaction to Denton, Texas, which is like the birthplace of fracking. It’s a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas where you have the most frack wells–and this is not an area of the country which is like a liberal bastion of places, where you’re going to have that liberal slate of political agenda to [inaud.]
DESVARIEUX: Yes, this is not Austin.
FOX: Denton, Texas is that Texas. And those citizens banded together because they were getting sick. They had incredible rates of childhood asthma, they had a real problem. And they said, we want to ban fracking within our community. And they got together, they created a ballot initiative. They needed 500 signatures, they got something like 2,000. Sixty percent of the people in Denton, Texas voted to ban fracking in Denton, Texas, the birthplace of fracking.
And so what happens? At the state level the governor, who is bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry, passed a ban on bans. He’s saying you can’t ban fracking anywhere in Texas. The oil and gas industry is more important than your local ordnance. We are not going to pay attention to you. And so what that has resulted in is a civil disobedience campaign in Denton where you have a number of these people from Frack Free Denton who are wonderful. And if you go to my Facebook page, my personal Facebook page or the Gasland Facebook page you can get links to what they’re doing. I think it’s FrackFreeDenton.com. They are lining up in front of the gas well sites, the frack sites, and saying arrest me, I’m blockading this site. And these are very serious charges. These are misdemeanors that are [trespassed].
But when the first wave was in front of those wells, the cop that was tasked with arresting those citizens shook the hand of one of them before he arrested him. The cop was on his side. It was something remarkable I haven’t seen before.
So what’s the future of fracking. If the government continues to bury its head and these chemicals in the sand, you’re going to see a lot more conflict. You’re going to see civil disobedience. You’re going to see a citizen movement that is not going to surrender. Listen, when you’re placed in that crosshairs of fracking as I was in 2008, and luckily in my area in the Delaware river basin we won a moratorium on fracking and all the fracking companies left because our citizens were too powerful. You’re going to have confrontation. And you’re going to see this movement get stronger and stronger and stronger, because it so takes over your life.
When you’re in one of those fracking areas you have fracked wells all over the place. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of truck trips that are circling your entire neighborhood which are causing traffic accidents, which are overturning into creeks and streams, or causing all manner of mayhem. You have asthma rates go through the roof because you have toxic emissions on all those well sites. Every single well site would be considered a [incompr.] site based on the amount of chemicals that they have in those areas.
So this is not a situation where you could say oh, it won’t happen to me. If you’re in one of those areas, you’re in that area. Your house is worthless. You have a strong chance of having water contamination, you definitely have air pollution in your area. You’re going to be facing some of these health risks. Like I mentioned, respiratory problems, cancers, and problems to the unborn. Low birth weight, as was just brought up in a new study in the New York Times yesterday.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Josh, we’re going to continue following this story. Thank you so much for being with us.
FOX: Oh, I really appreciate it. And listen, there are a number of good articles about what’s happening with the EPA study. If you don’t want to listen to exactly what I’m saying, there is actually starting to become a wave of journalists that are really looking into this, and I appreciate so much your efforts as a part of that. We’ve got to set the record straight here. The science matters, the science doesn’t lie. The PR can often lie, but the science usually doesn’t. So thank you.
DESVARIEUX: All right. That was Josh Fox joining us from New York. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Josh sent us the following links to include with his interview.
From the actual EPA report:
A few more articles:
Concrete evidence of industry influence on EPA (Greenpeace FOIA):