Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment of its study on the relationship between drinking water and the fossil-fuel extracting process of fracking. It turns out that earlier versions of the assessment drew clearer links on the process’ effect on drinking water.

An investigation by APM Reports and Marketplace exposed that last-minute changes to the study “played down the risk of pollution that can result from the well-drilling technique known as fracking.”  

Per the investigation:

Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.

Earlier versions of the study’s news release read, “Agency identified small number of documented impacts relative to number of fracked wells.” Yet in the final version this was changed to the following: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” 

Unnamed sources in the article told the news organizations that the EPA’s conclusion was “irresponsible” and that they felt “surprised and disappointed” by how the agency framed the study. This framing did not help environmental activists who had been working to ban fracking around the country and were hoping the study would help their efforts.

It did help the fossil fuel industry, however, which often references the study to prove fracking is safe. 

This investigation is not the first time there has been disagrement with the study. The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board said in January that it was concerned with the “clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings presented” in the assessment. The board specifically mentioned the Executive Summary, which underwent major last minute changes, including removing the explicit mention of water contamination, according to documents in the investigation. The board suggested the EPA make the language more precise.

Find the complete investigation by APM Reports and Marketplace with accompanying documents here.