First Responders, Health Professionals Question EPA’s Decision to Hide Fracking Chemicals

This month, representatives of a group of first responders, health professionals and scientists questioned EPA’s decision to withhold the secret identities of 41 chemicals used for oil and natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing that the EPA’s own regulators identified as posing health risks.

Silverio Caggiano, Battalion Chief of the Youngstown, Ohio Fire Department, Dr. Kathleen Nolan, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York; Dr. Pouné Saberi, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility; and Dr. John Stolz, Professor of Microbiology at Duquesne University wrote to the EPA asking the agency to explain its decision to keep the identities of the 41 chemicals secret. The four writers are part of a group of more than 100 first responders, health professionals and scientists who in 2017 asked the EPA to reveal the chemicals’ identities under a provision of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act that allows EPA to reveal confidential chemical identities to protect health and the environment. TSCA also allows chemical manufacturers to keep chemical identities secret to protect trade secrets.

EisenbarthU.S. Environmental Protection Agency photo of Eisenbarth well fire in Monroe County, Ohio, June 2014. According to an EPA report, secret fracking chemicals were likely released as a result of the fire along with other chemicals. Fluids ran off the well pad into a tributary of the Ohio river where an estimated 70,000 fish died.

According to the results of a Freedom of Information Act request made by Partnership for Policy Integrity, the EPA reviewed the 41 chemicals under the agency’s New Chemicals program designed to protect the public from chemical risks before chemicals are used commercially.  The agency found health risks for the chemicals ranging from irritation to the eye, skin, and mucous membranes to kidney toxicity, liver toxicity, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. Nonetheless, the agency approved the chemicals for use. In most cases, the agency made its approvals without health testing data that EPA can require under the law. Additional evidence showed that the chemicals were used or likely used in oil and gas wells. The chemicals’ manufacturers withheld much of the information about the chemicals’ identities, especially their Chemical Abstracts Service numbers that scientists consider the best way to identify chemicals. This secrecy makes it extremely difficult to know where the chemicals had been used and may expose people unknowingly to health risks. The first responders, health professionals and scientists noted in their 2017 request that such a possibility is not just hypothetical. In recent investigations, people living near oil and gas drilling sites have reported some of the same health problems that EPA regulators identified as concerns in their New Chemicals program reviews.

Yet in 2018, EPA denied the request to release the chemicals’ identities, stating that “while our reviews identified some potential hazards associated with these chemical substances, EPA’s assessments also indicated that, under the intended conditions of use, exposures would be adequately controlled to prevent any unreasonable risk.”

Caggiano, Nolan, Siberi, and Stolz asked EPA his month to explain what exposure assumptions that agency used in making this determination. They noted that in 2016, Partnership for Policy Integrity had found in its report, Toxic Secrets, that EPA in its New Chemicals program reviews had assumed that oil and gas chemicals never leaked, spilled, or were otherwise unintentionally released. These assumptions were contradicted by evidence that EPA itself had gathered of leaks and spills in oil and gas drilling and by statements made by oil and gas companies in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that leaks and spills are common in oil and gas drilling. EPA had essentially acknowledged that its exposure assumptions were unrealistic by telling PFPI and another nonprofit, Earthworks, that it was in the process of revising its exposure assumptions for hydraulic fracturing chemicals (though not for drilling chemicals) to include the possibility of leaks and spills. The four letter writers also asked EPA to say when, or if, the agency plans to follow through on its plan to update its chemical exposure assumptions. Finally, the group called on EPA to conduct field testing for the 41 chemicals to determine if the agency’s exposure assumptions have been accurate. If testing shows that people are being exposed to the chemicals through unpredicted routes, or if the agency lacks the resources to conduct such testing, the writers asked EPA to revisit its decision to deny disclosure of the chemicals’ identities.

Partnership for Policy Integrity