CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday 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," said agency spokesman Tom Reynolds in Washington, D.C. The EPA will let state officials carry on the investigation with the federal agency's support, Reynolds said.
Wyoming officials have been skeptical about the theory that fracking played a role in the pollution at Pavillion, but Reynolds expressed confidence the state could lead the work from here. He described the shift as the best way to ensure 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 Thursday's announcement shows the EPA is finding it more difficult than originally expected to come to grips with the full environmental effect of fracking. He noted that the EPA is pushing back other work aimed at gauging the how energy production may pollute groundwater.
"It's not surprising to me that they're kind of taking a secondary role in rural Pavillion," Garrett 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.
EPA officials insisted Thursday that the agency is not giving up on its Pavillion research and reserves the right to pick up the investigation in the future and open it to peer review. The EPA also has been examining the relationship between fracking and groundwater in different areas of the country and is proceeding with that study.
The new research led by Wyoming officials would be funded at least in part by a $1.5 million grant from Encana Corp.'s U.S. oil and gas subsidiary, which owns the Pavillion gas field. The state will issue a final report in late 2014, Gov. Matt Mead's office said in a news release.
Mead said Wyoming will focus on making sure the few dozen affected residents of the rural, farming and ranching country a few miles outside Pavillion, population 230, have a clean source of drinking water. The state has been providing water cisterns to 20 people in the area.
"It is in everyone's best interest — particularly the citizens who live outside of Pavillion — that Wyoming and the EPA reach an unbiased, scientifically supportable conclusion," Mead said in a news release. "I commend EPA and Encana for working with me to chart a positive course for the investigation."
The study will assess the need for any further action to protect drinking water sources, according to the release, which was similar to a draft obtained by The Associated Press ahead of the official announcement Thursday afternoon.
The Encana funding would go to the Wyoming Natural Resource Foundation, a nonprofit that works with local conservation districts and state and federal agencies on conservation projects. From there, the money would be used to further examine 14 domestic water wells in the Pavillion field for water quality and palatability concerns.
Local residents have complained for more than seven years that their water began to reek of chemicals since fracking occurred in their neighborhood. However, EPA efforts to find potential pathways for deeper areas from which gas is extracted to shallower areas tapped by domestic water wells have been inconclusive, according to the release.
"We're pleased that EPA has agreed to discontinue the investigation," Encana spokesman Doug Hock said. "We applaud the fact that further efforts in Pavilion will focus on a few specific complaints about perceived changes in domestic water well quality."
Under the plans for the new state study, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — the primary regulator of oil and gas drilling in the state — will study whether any gas wells drilled within a quarter-mile of the 14 water wells have cracked or ruptured. The commission will then have one or more outside experts review the well integrity analysis.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality plans to hire outside expertise to help with reviewing existing data on contaminants in Pavillion-area water wells. The state might also gather new samples for testing.