EPA Regulations Probably Won’t Tell Us Everything In Fracking Fluid

CREDIT: Associated Press

Effluent from the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant is discharged into the Niagara River near the American Falls in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a cautious step Friday towards requiring drilling companies to disclose what chemicals they pump into the earth in fracking operations. The agency is starting to look into asking drilling companies reveal some or all of the chemicals they pump into the ground as part of hydraulic fracturing, several years after the start of an oil and gas boom brought on by fracking. The whole system is likely to be voluntary and there are likely to be exceptions for chemicals the industry wants to keep secret, meaning real disclosure is still not on the table.

Companies pump millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals, known and unknown, into the earth for each drill site. Much of this flows back to the surface. The federal government doesn’t require disclosure of which chemicals are in the mixture, though some state governments require partial disclosure — except for the chemicals that companies decide they want to keep secret.

This flowback water, or wastewater, is one of the greatest potential health threats from fracking operations, as it’s been known to spill or be treated inadequately before being released into rivers and other surface water. A growing number of states are banning even treated wastewater from being dumped within their borders. A large portion of it remains underground.

Only a few studies have examined the health effects of direct exposure to fracking wastewater, but one from Cornell found that cows experienced consequences ranging from near-immediate death, to stillbirths, to birth defects persisting for years after exposure to spills. Studies on fracking’s health effects are limited due to a deliberate effort by the industry and allied lawmakers to interfere. Even when people successfully sue drilling companies for hurting their health, the companies prefer to settle and impose a gag order on the harmed individuals so that their poisoning doesn’t become public record.

The EPA is starting by soliciting opinions from the industry, environmental groups, health care organizations, states, and the public on the idea of requiring companies to list the chemical components in fracking fluid. The EPA has made clear that they will consider allowing some chemical ingredients to remain secret, as drillers claim that revealing their formulas would allow other drillers to copy them. And they are also open to disclosure being voluntary. It is unclear how drillers keeping chemicals a secret benefits the public or why regulators might allow it, except that the drilling companies want to keep it that way and hold significant sway over the process. But the lengths that they go to in order to keep their secrets can approach absurdity, including preventing doctors from telling their patients which toxic chemicals are poisoning them.

One driller, Baker Hughes, announced in April that it will disclose all the chemical ingredients in its fracking fluid, which would be a first for the industry. The site FracFocus, a partnership between water regulators and the industry, lets companies voluntarily report chemicals used already, with exceptions for the chemicals they don’t want to mention.

Drillers are complaining, predictably, about the EPA’s move toward regulation. They claim that it is ‘unnecessary and duplicative,’ according to a statement from API spokesman Zachary Cikanek. But the EPA could avoid duplicating existing regulations by going further: making disclosure mandatory and applying it to all chemicals pumped into the ground.