How regulators “regulate” to make fracing safe: Let industry inject toxic frac waste into federally protected drinking water aquifers; “Levels of benzene up to 700 times federal standard have been found in waste water from fracking”

Cancer-causing Chemicals Found in Fracking Flowback From California Oil WellsAnalysis of State Documents Reveals High Levels of Benzene, Chromium-6 Press Release by Center for Biological Diversity, February 11, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO— Flowback fluid from fracked oil wells in California commonly contains dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals, a new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity has found.

Flowback fluid is a key component of oil-industry wastewater from fracked wells, which is commonly disposed of in injection wells, which often feed into aquifers, including some that could be used for drinking water and irrigation. Oil wastewater is also dumped into open pits.

Benzene levels over 1,500 times the federal limits for drinking water were found in fracking flowback fluid tests dating back to April 2014 obtained and analyzed by the Center. Benzene in excess of federal limits was found in 320 tests, and chromium-6 was detected 118 times. Both chemicals can cause cancer.

“Cancer-causing chemicals are surfacing in fracking flowback fluid just as we learn that the California oil industry is disposing of wastewater in hundreds of illegal disposal wells and open pits,” said Hollin Kretzmann, the Center lawyer who conducted the analysis. “Gov. Brown needs to shut down all the illegal wells immediately and ban fracking to fight this devastating threat to California’s water supply.”

Hundreds of injection wells were recently revealed to be illegally dumping oil industry wastewater into scores of California aquifers, including some that supply water for drinking and farming irrigation. Central Valley water officials also recently revealed that at least 383 oil industry wastewater pits are operating without permits or oversight. Most wastewater pits are unlined and don’t have covers.

Among the concerns revealed by the Center’s analysis of fracking flowback testing:

  • High chromium-6 [hexavalent chromium] levels: Chromium-6 was found in fracking flowback at levels up to 2,700 times the recommended level set by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. [Arsenic and chromium 6 were found in samples by the regulator of Rosebud monitoring water wells (this was not disclosed to the community. Tests by Encana and the regulator show that chromium went up by a factor of 45 in the Ernst water after Encana fractured the community’s drinking water aquifers]
  • Missing reports: At least 100 fracking flowback tests are missing from the reporting website managed by California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, in violation of state law.
  • Missing benzene data: Only 329 of the 479 fracking fluid chemical tests on the state oil agency’s website measured for benzene. [Benzene was found in Signer’s drinking water, and in Rosebud hamlet drinking water]
  • Benzene common: Of those 329 chemical tests that measured for benzene, 323 detected benzene while only six did not.
  • Dangerous toluene levels: Toluene, a toxin that can affect the central nervous system and harm developing fetuses, was found to exceed federal-mandated limits for drinking water 118 times. [Toluene was found by the regulator in the Rosebud hamlet drinking water but the regulator did not disclose this to the community or visitors ingesting the water. Toluene was also found by the regulator in the Lauridsen water]

2006 Toxic chemicals found by the regulator in Rosebud Hamlet drinking water

2006 Toxic chemicals found by the regulator in Ernst drinking water

Slides from Ernst presentations

High levels of benzene found in fracking waste water, Levels of benzene up to 700 times the federal standard have been found in waste water from fracking, data show by Julie Cart, February 11, 2014
Hoping to better understand the health effects of oil fracking, the state in 2013 ordered oil companies to test the chemical-laden waste water extracted from wells.

Data culled from the first year of those tests found significant concentrations of the human carcinogen benzene in this so-called “flowback fluid.” In some cases, the fracking waste liquid, which is frequently reinjected into groundwater, contained benzene levels thousands of times greater than state and federal agencies consider safe.

The testing results from hundreds of wells showed, on average, benzene levels 700 times higher than federal standards allow, according to a Times analysis of the state data.

The presence of benzene in fracking waste water is raising alarm over potential public health dangers amid admissions by state oil and gas regulators that California for years inadvertently allowed companies to inject fracking flowback water into protected aquifers containing drinking water.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency called the state’s errors “shocking.” [Or more like “standard” Best in the World deregulatory favours for industry?]

The discovery adds urgency to a mounting list of problems at the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which regulates the oil and gas industry.

The Times analyzed self-reported testing results that oil well operators submitted to the state for the first time in 2014, complying with new fracking regulations that legislators approved in 2013. The law requires well operators using so-called well stimulation techniques such as fracking, steam injection and acidizing to report water testing results to an online database. It grew out of fears about health risks from chemicals used in fracking, in which a slurry of chemicals is injected underground to unlock deposits of oil or gas.

The raw data, compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity, showed that 98% of waste water samples taken from 329 fracked oil wells exceeded federal and state water quality standards for benzene concentrations.

The data publicly reveal, for the first time, the components of oil production fluids that companies dispose of by pumping them into underground waste wells. Those wells are now the subject of federal and state review: The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources recently conceded that for decades it erred by allowing oil companies to dispose of drilling waste water through more than 170 disposal wells bored into aquifers that contained water classified as clean by federal law.

The EPA contends that an additional 279 disposal wells were drilled into aquifers containing water suitable for drinking if treated. An additional 48 waste wells were allowed to discharge in aquifers that lack any water quality classification, federal regulators say.

Waste disposal wells are legally required to be sited in aquifers that contain water too contaminated for human consumption or agricultural use.

The data that oil companies reported to state regulators, however, probably do not account for the full extent of benzene present in fracking flowback. Many operators failed to comply with reporting requirements. And at least 150 reported some results but either failed to test for or provided no data for benzene and a host of other dangerous contaminants.

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is monitoring the injection program, said the situation is “a disaster. The aquifer information is a complete mess. They are trying to piece it all together — in some cases decades after these injections started.”

The EPA has the authority to administer federal water laws, but a 1983 agreement gave California the responsibility for monitoring water quality in its injection well program.

The state is required to submit periodic reports to the EPA, but the federal agency has long complained that the documents have been late and incomplete.

An audit in 2011 exposed widespread, systemic problems and the EPA concluded that the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources had lost control of its well injection system. [Or intentionally let it go where industry wanted it?]

The report cited concerns that included the training of inspectors, the frequency of inspections and the lack of clarity about the location of clean water sources.

Those problems are more troubling because oil operators are disclosing the content of the waste and authorities better understand where it is going.

In December, the EPA gave the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources until last week to submit a plan to safeguard drinking water and two years to implement much of it. [How much water and how many families and farms will be harmed in the meantime?]

Blumenfeld said the EPA is directing $500,000 to help California establish a baseline for water quality. [A lot too late, no such thing as “baseline” after decades of intentionally injecting toxic waste into aquifers]

Benzene is often part of the chemical cocktail — along with sand and large amounts of water — injected into oil-bearing formations to break open fissures for oil or gas to escape.

Timothy Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, said that when he initially saw the levels of benzene in the test results he thought there was a reporting error. “They are just phenomenal numbers,” he said.

The industry says that fracking is safe and that there is there is little evidence that water supplies have been contaminated.

Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., said the question of disposal into protected California aquifers turns on a discrepancy between what aquifers the state and the EPA deem appropriate for disposal wells. Zierman said he’s confident that the areas where the disputed disposal wells are operating will be reclassified as acceptable. [How many millions that will cost in political “donations?”]

California pledges changes in protecting underground water by  Ellen Knickmeyer, The Associated Press, February 10, 2015

California has proposed closing by October up to 140 oilfield wells that state regulators had allowed to inject into federally protected drinking water aquifers, state officials said Monday. … An ongoing state review mandated by the EPA found more than 2,500 oil and gas injection wells that the state authorized into aquifers that were supposed to be protected as current or potential sources of water for drinking and watering crops.

An Associated Press analysis found hundreds of the now-challenged state permits for oilfield injection into protected aquifers have been granted since 2011, despite the state’s drought and growing warnings from the EPA about lax state protection of water aquifers in areas of oil and gas operations. …

EPA spokeswoman Nahal Mogharabi said Monday that federal authorities would review the new state plan over coming weeks. “EPA will then work with the State to ensure that the plan contains actions that will bring their program into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Mogharabi said. She referred to landmark 1974 legislation that sought to protect underground drinking-water sources from oil and gas operations.

Bohlen said 140 of those 2,500 injection wells were of primary concern to the state now because they were actively injecting oil-field fluids into aquifers with especially good water quality.

State water officials currently are reviewing those 140 oil-field wells to see which are near water wells and to assess any contamination of water aquifers from the oil and gas operations, Bohlen said.

Part of the state plan released Monday would set an Oct. 15 deadline to stop injection into those water aquifers deemed most vital to protect them from contamination. [Why wait nearly a year?] State officials also could shut down oil field wells sooner if they are deemed to jeopardize nearby water wells, authorities said. This summer, the state ordered oil companies to stop using at least nine oil field wells that altogether had more than 100 water wells nearby.

The U.S. EPA had given the state until Friday to detail how it would deal with current injection into protected water aquifers and stop future permitting of risky injection.

While some of the fluids and materials that oil companies inject underground as part of normal production is simply water, some can contain high levels of salt or other material [Refer above] that can render water unfit for drinking or irrigating crops.

Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western State Petroleum Association, said the oil-industry group feared state regulators would not be able to meet all the deadlines they were setting for compliance with federal water standards. If that happens, oil producers “would be put into the untenable position of having to shut in wells or reduce production,” Hull said.

Andrew Grinberg, a spokesman for the Clean Water Action environmental group, called the state-permitted injection into drinking-water aquifers a “massive failure” of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Bohlen, appointed as the state’s chief oil and gas regulator last summer, said the improperly authorized oil-field operations were a “problem that needs our close attention and an urgent path forward.” [Urgent?  Like dealing with the problem a year or two later?] [Emphasis added]

113,000 Californians Petition Against Fracking by Nick Cahill, February 10, 2015, court house news
Thousands of anti-fracking protesters marched through Gov. Jerry Brown’s hometown of Oakland Saturday and by Monday 113,000 of their signatures had crossed his desk at the state Capitol. The activists submitted a petition demanding a ban on fracking in California, asking Brown to adopt similar legislation to that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did in December 2014.  The petition crossed Brown’s desk two days after the largest fracking protest in U.S. history. … The more than 100,000 signatures were packed into a box and delivered to Brown’s office by Daily Kos campaign director Paul Hogarth.

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