Secret Fracking Chemicals Threaten Delaware River Basin, Pennsylvania

EPA Records Suggest Secret Fracking Chemicals Pose Serious Health Risks
But Pa. Law Allows Drilling Companies to Hide Chemical Identities, Even in Emergencies

September 11, 2018. Drilling companies injected at least one hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) chemical with an identity kept hidden from the public into more than 2,500 unconventional natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania between 2013 and 2017, amounting to 55 percent of the more than 4,500 unconventional gas wells drilled in the state during the five-year period, according to a new report from Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI).  The first-ever in-depth analysis of secret fracking chemical use in Pennsylvania’s unconventional gas wells shows that in total, companies injected secret fracking chemicals 13,632 times into 2,515 wells drilled primarily in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

Records released to PFPI by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that these chemicals could have serious health effects including irritation to skin and lungs, liver toxicity, developmental toxicity and neurotoxicity.  As a result, the widespread use of secret fracking chemicals poses serious health risks for people living near Pennsylvania’s unconventional gas wells and for 15 million people who rely on drinking water from the Delaware River Basin that sits atop deposits of unconventional gas.

The report is based in part on an analysis by Pennsylvania-based FracTracker Alliance of publicly reported fracking chemical use.  Exemptions in Pennsylvania law virtually guarantee that the use of secret chemicals in the state’s oil and gas wells was even higher than publicly disclosed.  Under one exemption, chemical manufacturers, as opposed to other companies involved in fracking, are not required to disclose fracking chemical identities, even to emergency responders cleaning up a leak or spill.  This exemption is distinct from Pennsylvania’s recently invalidated “physician gag rule.”

“Exposing people to unknown health risks is unacceptable,” said PFPI Senior Counsel, Dusty Horwitt, the report’s author.  “The widespread use of secret fracking chemicals – many of them potentially dangerous – is powerful evidence for the need to prohibit fracking and related activities in the Delaware River Basin and near other drinking water supplies.”

In the coming months, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is expected to vote on a plan it proposed to ban fracking in the basin – fracking that would be most likely to occur in unconventional gas wells in Pennsylvania’s portion of the four-state area.  There is currently a de facto moratorium on fracking in the basin, which provides drinking water for New York City and Philadelphia among other cities.  The commission is also expected to consider its seemingly inconsistent proposal to allow related activities inside the basin, including the treatment and discharge into waterways of fracking wastewater from outside the basin.  Fracking or discharges of wastewater would likely include some of the secret fracking chemicals featured in the report.

“Willful ignorance of the toxic threat posed by fracking and its wastewater is no excuse for government officials charged with protecting the public,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.  “Importing toxic wastewater into the Delaware River Basin for storage and disposal poses a huge risk to the millions of people who rely on the river for drinking water, fishing, swimming, jobs, recreation, and more.”

“Allowing fracking or fracking wastewater disposal in the Delaware River Basin represents a potential disaster for our water supply,” said Walter Tsou, MD, former health commissioner of Philadelphia and former president of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility.  “The extensive use of secret chemicals in fracking means that if our water were contaminated, citizens and regulators might not know until it was too late.”

Health problems related to secret fracking chemicals are not just hypothetical.  In Amity and Prosperity, a recent book about fracking in Washington County, Pennsylvania, journalist Eliza Griswold found that several residents living near fracked unconventional gas wells, a pit of drilling waste, and a pond of fracking wastewater suffered mysterious illnesses and the deaths of several animals.  Yet proving a link to the drilling operations was challenging in part because citizens could not obtain a full list of the chemicals involved, even with a court order requiring full disclosure by the company in charge of the drilling site.  One of the citizens lost a lawsuit for damages due to inability to prove such a link, and the other citizens signed confidential settlements with the drilling interests they had sued that left them “feeling angry and defeated.”

“As a front-line, public health organization, we have documented negative health effects among residents of Washington County living near unconventional gas wells, so this extensive use of secret fracking chemicals is troubling,” said Raina Rippel, Director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.  “The last thing people need when they’re sick is to be denied basic information about what chemicals could have caused their illness.”  The report includes maps and tables showing that Washington County near Pittsburgh had the highest secret chemical use; Susquehanna County near the Delaware River Basin was second.

“After years of promises from the oil and gas industry and state governments that they would tell the public what’s in fracking fluid, it seems like we’re back to square one,” said Wes Gillingham, Associate Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, a group that has urged a ban on fracking and related activities in the Delaware River Basin.  “We’re still in the dark.”

Partnership for Policy Integrity