“The public has a right to know”: Fracking companies don’t have to disclose chemicals linked to health concerns

Part One

Part Two: Click to listen to the audio: “The public has a right to know”: Fracking companies don’t have to disclose chemicals linked to health concerns by Scott Tong, November 15, 2017, Market Place

Secrecy lies at the heart of invention and capitalism to reward innovators with exclusive rights to their creations. But that secrecy can also come at a cost. With drilling and fracking, the ingredients that make up the chemicals used to obtain oil and gas are legally allowed to be kept confidential. According to newly released documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, that secrecy starts as soon as chemical manufacturers apply for government approval of their products.

Hundreds of agency papers were released under the Freedom of Information Act to the environment group Partnership for Policy Integrity. They show that from 2003 to 2014 chemical makers routinely withheld all kinds of information in their applications, including the molecular structure of chemicals, product names, commercial uses of chemicals, even the manufacturers’ names.

EPA scientists are privy to this chemical information, but cannot make it public, said Dusty Horwitt, an attorney with the Partnership for Policy Integrity. [What cowardly scientists]

The new documents show that the EPA listed varying health risks about most of the chemicals it approved, including the risk of poisoning to the brain, lungs and liver.

“If EPA’s own regulators are finding that there are health concerns about these chemicals, and then they allow them to be used in oil and gas drilling, the public has a right to know,” Horwitt said.

He and more than 100 toxicologists and advocates are sending a letter to the EPA, asking it to release the details on more than 40 drilling and fracking chemicals — ones the agency described as risky to human health. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Click on the dots in the map below to see information about individual wells that used chemicals that the EPA knew posed potential health risks.

Source: EPA documents released to the Partnership for Policy Integrity

Many living near drilling sites experience those risks firsthand. Rebecca Bowen of Clarington, Ohio recalls an oil well site catching fire in 2014. It happened one ridge over from Bowen’s house, engulfing 20 trucks and triggering 30 explosions, according to a federal investigation. Black smoke filled the air.

“Our throats by then burnt so bad. They told me my daughter’s esophagus was melted. My husband, after this happened, he was diagnosed with six spots on his lungs. About six months later he had more spots in his lungs,” Bowen said.

Thousands of gallons of chemicals escaped into a local waterway, Opossum Creek, that dumps into the Ohio River, according to a federal investigation.

“That’s where all the fish died. They said there were 70,000 fish or something like that that died. There’s still people up there swimming. And who knows how them chemicals went into the earth?” Bowen said about the creek. EPA investigators determined water readings returned to normal three weeks after the incident, though critics remain worried about ecological damage.

The oil field services company operating the well, Halliburton, later provided a partial list of chemicals used. But the company deemed several chemicals proprietary and did not disclose those, which is allowed under state law.

Documents show undisclosed EPA health concerns on fracking chemicals
The link between fracking and health issues

So doctors and scientists assessing patients like Bowen and her family don’t always know what local residents have been exposed to. Some fracking chemicals are known, like ethylene glycol, which can affect the kidneys and lungs. Others are surprises, said David Brown, a toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.

“We’ve learned that there are chemicals there that we never expected them to be there. Had we known that, it would have been possible to organize a more systematic approach to protecting and determining the safety of people living near the gas drilling,” Brown said.

In the case of potential exposure, he often doesn’t know what to look for, or what to test for. “My alternative has been — think of everything. It’s very expensive to ask questions that didn’t need to be asked,” Brown said, like running a host of laboratory tests blindly.

Oil and gas groups note that chemicals do get reported to a national database known as FracFocus, though with exceptions for trade secrets. In emergencies, they said, all the chemical secrets are available to doctors and first responders.

But in the 2014 Ohio fire, responders weren’t given chemical identities for days, said Youngstown Fire Department Battalion Chief Silverio Caggiano. He is also a member of the regional hazardous materials response team.

“Firefighters, you know, we have this tradition of running in where people are running out. And without the knowledge of what’s in there, running in there may be turning us into victims as well,” Caggiano said.

Any sort of delay on the part of first responders can be catastrophic if a chemical gets out.

“So I have no way of containing it. I don’t know how to contain it,” Caggiano said. “That’s why that information is so critical to first responders within the first 30 minutes of us being able to formulate a game plan. Because after 30 minutes, game’s over. It’s gonna do what it’s going to do,” Caggiano explained.

Oil and gas chemical secrecy is unusual, said Caggiano. In every other sector, truck drivers who transport chemicals carry papers, called Material Safety Data Sheets, listing the contents.

“The driver’s MSDS sheets, even if he is not alive, I know where his MSDS sheets are. They’re within a foot of his right hand,” Caggiano said. “But with the fracking industry, whatever they’re hauling there’s not going to be one.” He has signed onto the letter asking the EPA for more disclosure on oil and gas chemicals.

Another signatory, toxicologist John Stolz at Duquesne University, said this is important now, because the North American fracking revolution is just starting to scale up.

“We’re flying blindly because we don’t have the facts. We don’t have all the information that we need. And there’s fracking going on in 34 states,” Stolz said.

For more information about the potential links between fracking and health risks, click here.

Correction (Nov. 16, 2017): A previous version of this story identified documents carried by truckers as “Medical Safety Data Sheets.” The correct term is “Material Safety Data Sheets.” 

[Refer also to:

2017 11 16: Industrial Strength: How U.S. Govt Hid Fracking’s Risks to Drinking Water, A pivotal EPA study provided rationale for exemptions that helped unleash the fracking boom. Science suppressed to protect industry interests

2017 07 27: The Poison Papers: Documenting the Hidden History of Chemical and Pesticide Hazards in the United States, Makes public 100,000 pages of chemical industry secrets and regulator collusion. “We didn’t think of ourselves as environmentalists, that wasn’t even a word back then,” Van Strum said. “We just didn’t want to be poisoned.”

2017 02 22: Firefighters: Increased disclosure needed for fracking emergencies: “Not requiring fracking companies to disclose trade secret chemicals to those we entrust with our safety, even during a disaster, is just plain irresponsible.”

2015 02 15: Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez challenging Pennsylvania’s Act 13 Gag Rule which prohibits disclosure of frac chemicals, even by doctors treating patients poisoned by fracing unless they sign strict confidentiality agreements

2014 10 01: Why was a 2012 Health Canada Report, admitting significant health hazards and risks to groundwater and air from hydraulic fracturing, kept from the public?

2014 07 28: EPA Investigation report details toxic chemicals at Statoil Frac Site Explosion; Chemicals spilled into Opossum Creek – 70,000 fish killed; Ohio Regulator says safe to drink the water

2014 07 24: Harper government enabling the frac harm cover up? Environment Canada criticized for leaving fracking chemicals off pollutant list saying not enough frac chemicals used – 362,000 litres of diesel invert lost underground near Alberta family home

2013 04 23: Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws, Why the Voluntary Chemical Disclosure Registry FracFocus Fails as a Regulatory Compliance Tool

2013 04 23: FracFocus has ‘serious flaws,’ Harvard study says

2013 01 01: Alberta joins British Columbia in partial disclosure of frac chemicals by Fracfocus.caSecrets permittede.g.for one of the 4 wells posted in Alberta so far, as of February 3, 2013, none of the chemical additives are disclosed (product name does not equal chemical ingredients, which is the trick Encana and Frac Focus continue to use to avoid mandatory disclosure):

Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Chemicals, CAS#/MIRC# not provided
Dec 1 2012 – Dec 3 2012, 08-33-053-10W5, Artisan Energy:
CARRIER FLUID      TG-740    Not Available
ADDITIVE                 HB-4           Trican Breaker 0.46%
ADDITIVE                 HX-2W       Trican Crosslinker 0.44%
ADDITIVE                 Hg-2            Trican Gelling Agent 0.46%
ADDITIVE                 S-12             Trican Surfactant 0.16%

2012 06 18: The Big Secret? Fracking Fluids

In 2008, Cathy Behr, a Colorado emergency room nurse at Durango Mercy Regional Medical Center was working the day shift when a gas driller worker, Clinton Marshall, arrived complaining of nausea and headaches. Marshall had spilled “fracturing fluid” on his clothes and boots and the smell apparently was overpowering and sufficiently strong that they evacuated the emergency room. Cathy Behr, without protection, had meanwhile spent just ten minutes tending to Mr. Marshall. A few days after this ER visit, Behr appeared jaundiced and began vomiting fluid and having difficulty breathing. Behr’s husband took her back to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with multiple organ failure, including liver failure, respiratory distress and erratic blood counts. She was admitted to the ICU with the presumptive diagnosis of poisoning from an unknown chemical. The chemical was and is still considered to be a proprietary formula by the producer, Halliburton, a gas industry leader. It was later revealed to be a product with the trade name, Zetaflow. Halliburton noted that Zetaflow increases gas production by 30% and threatened that it would pull its secret sauce out of Colorado if it was forced to reveal what was in it.

The law exempts gas companies from disclosing the nature of contaminants from fracking flowback which are often laden with toxic heavy metals or radioactive isotopes.  The modus operandi of the gas industry is tied to non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements, making research into the health effects of fracking virtually impossible.

2008 Collection of articles: A Toxic Spew: The near death – by secret frac chemicals – of emergency room nurse Cathy Behr ]

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