Local governments that have long voiced concerns about the risks of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the practice by natural gas producers of flooding underground gas deposits with chemical-containing fluids to force the gas up — have finally gotten the ear of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In September, the EPA issued information requests to nine natural gas service companies as part of a scientific study it is conducting to determine whether the fracking process has an impact on drinking water and the public health of people who live near fracking wells.

The EPA sent the information requests to Atlanta-based RPC Inc.; Indiana, Pa.-based Superior Well Services; and BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services Patterson-UTI, Schlumberger and Weatherford, all of which are headquartered in Houston. By Nov. 9, eight out of the nine companies contacted had agreed to comply with the request, and a subpoena was issued to compel the ninth company, Halliburton, to comply.

EPA will announce initial results of the study in late 2012. In the meantime, the agency is working with dozens of state and local governments that play a role in overseeing and regulating fracturing operations and have been taking steps to protect local air and water quality, EPA officials say.

In early 2010, EPA officials descended on the 166-resident town of Pavillion, Wyo., to test private water wells and found potential groundwater contaminants, including the carcinogen benzene, that may have come from fracking operations, among other possible sources of contamination. Pavillion Mayor Gary Hamlin says he would like to see further disclosure of fluids used in fracking operations.

Although Wyoming set forth new regulations in August requiring drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process, Hamlin points out that the state mandates that drillers report those chemicals only to the EPA and the Department of Environmental Quality, not to the general public. “I think no matter what you're getting into the ground, if it's affecting the water table, I think those chemicals should be disclosed,” he says.

Autumn Giusti is a New Orleans-based freelance writer.

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