By land, air and water, fracking is a killer


One of the big issues surrounding fracking is whether drillers should be required to disclose the chemicals they use to blast through rock formations deep under the earth. Environmental groups and local residents say that information is vital to protecting the public health, while the oil and gas companies insist this is proprietary business information. This week, we got another inkling of the real reason they’re not eager to share this data: The chemicals are deadly:

Field studies conducted by the U.S. Government have revealed that hydrofracking fluids are responsible for the deaths of four field workers since 2010. 

The report, recently released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety, suggests that workers could be exposed to hazardous levels of toxic volatile hydrocarbons found in waste fracking fluids.

“According to our information, at least four workers have died since 2010 from what appears to be acute chemical exposures during flow back operations at well sites in the Williston Basin (North Dakota and Montana),” government researchers wrote. “While not all of these investigations are complete, available information suggests that these cases involved workers who were gauging flow back or production tanks or involved in transferring flow back fluids at the well site.”

This is a fairly shocking report that I’d not seen anywhere else — and it should set off all sorts of alarm bells. That’s because while workers on-site obviously experience the most intense exposure, fracking fluids will also find their way into the broader environment — either through unintentional leaks in the drilling process or through the disposal of billions of gallons of wastewater that is created in the fracking process. In fact, there’s growing evidence that fracking wastewater — larded with toxic chemicals and radioactivity — is becoming a major U.S. public health crisis. A new, leaked draft report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows we don’t have anywhere near a handle on the problem:

It has twice as many pages as the version the EPA published in 2011, after it was revealed that regulators had allowed industry to send hundreds of millions of gallons of this waste through municipal water treatment plants in Pennsylvania that were not equipped to remove its most dangerous toxins before the water was then discharged into rivers, sometimes just a mile or so upstream from drinking water intake pipes.

The EPA’s new draft document now lists almost two dozen individual substances — like benzene, radium, and arsenic — that it says have been found at high enough levels in shale wastewater to cause concern. By contrast, the 2011 version focused mostly on the high levels of salts found in the waste.

The new document also explains that the substances it lists are not the only potential pollutants that must be removed before water can be considered fully treated and ready to enter rivers and streams. It explains that each treatment plant can only take wastewater once regulators are satisfied that they know what is actually in it.

This would seem to me to be grounds to place at least a moratorium on fracking — until scientists and environmentalists can better understand the risks from a process that’s now nearly a decade into this largely unregulated boom. In addition to the threats to rig workers and to water supplies, the news about toxic air pollution from the process keeps getting worse:

Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.

Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant “couldn’t go outside,” according to the TCEQ report.

Frustrated and angry, the Parrs decided to sue. Their attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, “intentionally created a private nuisance” that affected the family’s health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.

“When you don’t have a strong regulatory system, a system to prevent what happened to this family, the only place left to turn for help is the courts,” said Robert Percival, director of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Program.

That’s exactly right. Stories like these make it clear that regulators have completely dropped the ball — that in America’s rush to exploit this new source of energy it was drill first, and ask questions later. As the article about the deaths of fracking rig workers notes:

The fracking boom has proceeded at such fast pace in the U.S. that regulators have struggled to keep up with monitoring all the potential hazards involved in the process. The EPA has not been able to adequately keep track of how and where the fossil-fuel industry is disposing of fracking waste water. As a consequence,  countless gallons of partially treated waste water has ended up in the rivers and aquifers from which millions of Americans get their drinking water. 

The consequences of that neglect have been deadly. That’s why it’s time for a time-out on fracking, before even more harm is done.

Read more about the four worker fatalities at U.S. fracking sites:

For more information on the EPA draft memo on pollution threats from fracking wastewater, check out:

Find out more about toxic air pollution from fracking in Texas:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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