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Fracking: Part 3, The Chemicals of Fracking

Posted by on February 5, 2013

Recently I mentioned in my blog that the USGS has reported finding a vein of natural gas in Massachusetts and that this opens the possibility of fracking coming to a town near us. I also mentioned that EPA recently released a progress report on their investigation into environmental issues related to fracking and that in that report they divided the fracking process into five stages: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal. In my last blog I looked at the first of those stages; water acquisition. In this blog, I will look at the second stage; chemical mixing.  This is the stage in which chemicals are brought to the well site and mixed to produce the fracking fluid that will be injected into the well.

Here is EPA’s description of the chemical mixing stage of fracking.

“Once onsite, water is mixed with chemicals to create the hydraulic fracturing fluid that is pumped down the well… The fluid serves two purposes: to create pressure to propagate fractures and to carry the proppant into the fracture. Chemicals are added to the fluid to change its properties (e.g., viscosity, pH) in order to optimize the performance of the fluid. Roughly 1% of water-based hydraulic fracturing fluids are composed of various chemicals, which is equivalent to 50,000 gallons for a shale gas well that uses 5 million gallons of fluid.”

For environmentalists, it would seem that the two most relevant questions related to this phase of the fracking process are: 1) are the chemicals harmful to people and to wildlife, and 2) are these chemicals escaping into the environment and into drinking water.  

Are the chemicals harmful?  Here’s a partial list of the chemicals being used in fracking fluids.  The list comes from EPA’s progress report.

Chemicals Category No. of Products
Methanol HAP 342
Ethylene glycol HAP 119
Naphthalene Carcinogen, HAP 44
Xylene SDWA, HAP 44
Hydrochloric acid HAP 42
Toluene SDWA, HAP 29
Ethylbenzene SDWA, HAP 28
Diethanolamine HAP 14
Formaldehyde Carcinogen, HAP 12
Thiourea Carcinogen 9
Benzyl chloride Carcinogen, HAP 8
Cumene HAP 6
Nitrilotriacetic acid Carcinogen 6
Dimethyl formamide HAP 5
Phenol HAP 5
Benzene Carcinogen, SDWA, HAP 3
Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate Carcinogen, SDWA, HAP 3
Acrylamide Carcinogen, SDWA, HAP 2
Hydrofluoric acid HAP 2
Phthalic anhydride HAP 2
Acetaldehyde Carcinogen, HAP 1
Acetophenone HAP 1
Copper SDWA 1
Ethylene oxide Carcinogen, HAP 1
Lead Carcinogen, SDWA, HAP 1
Propylene oxide Carcinogen, HAP 1
p-Xylene HAP 1

Many of the chemicals used in fracking are known toxins and carcinogens. Many are known endocrine disruptors.  Some are known to cause liver damage.  Some of the most dangerous environmental toxins we know are being injected into the ground under pressure as part of the fracking process.  Everyone seems to agree that these chemicals are dangerous.  Even the fracking industry recognizes this, although they try to minimize the threat by pointing out that only about one or two percent of the fracking fluid is made up of chemicals.  The other 98 or 99 percent is water.  That doesn’t reassure me.  Because of the large amount of water used, fracking still requires hundreds of tons of chemicals per frack, and each well is fracked multiple times, and each site has multiple wells, or as EPA puts it, “Roughly1% of water-based hydraulic fracturing fluids are composed of various chemicals, which is equivalent to 50,000 gallons for a shale gas well that uses 5 million gallons of fluid.”  I’m reminded of BP’s Tony Haywood and his attempt to explain why the BP Gulf oil spill was no big deal. “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersants that we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

I mentioned that the above list of chemicals is a partial list.  EPA doesn’t have a complete list.  They have the list that is voluntarily provided by nine companies, and they have access to a public database, FracFocus, that allows fracking companies to make voluntary disclosures.    Even in states that have disclosure laws, the industry hides behind laws that protect “confidential business information.” In some states the industry has fought even releasing this information to emergency medical personnel on an as-needed basis.  In one such case, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reported, in a story entitled New NRDC analysis: State Fracking Disclosure Laws Fall Painfully Short,
“Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse in Durango, Colorado, became critically ill one day in 2008, after treating a fracking worker. Her skin turned yellow, she began vomiting, her lungs filled with fluid so that she felt as if she was “drowning from the inside out,” and she was diagnosed with multiple organ failure. For days, her doctors struggled to treat her as the fracking company refused to tell them what chemicals she was exposed to that could be making her so sick, even though her health was in jeopardy. Fortunately for Cathy, her doctors were able to save her without the information. But this incident is one of many where the oil and gas industry has refused to reveal the chemicals they are blasting into the ground–even near water sources. Others who are impacted may not be so lucky. ”

So the fracking chemicals that are disclosed by industry are dangerous, and many more are kept from public and even EPA view by industry.  But even if they are dangerous, maybe they are handled in a way that protects the public.  This is not the case.  The process of mixing the chemicals at the well site, of preparing those chemicals to be injected, and of transporting the chemicals to the well sites, and of transporting waste away from the well sites poses a significant danger to humans, to wildlife, and to our drinking water.  This would be true even if the fracking process itself and the disposal of waste fluids could be accomplished safely, which they cannot.

According to the watchdog group Fracking of America,

“Operators inevitably have spills throughout this process. Hoses come undone, gaskets fail, pits or tanks leak and liquids always hit the ground, often in large quantities. …[T]he fracking fluids contain numerous toxic chemicals and become even more contaminated once pumped downhole as they travel through rock formations before returning to the surface as flowback. These liquids can cause surface contamination and even in small quantities can contaminate shallow aquifers with hydrocarbons, toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive materials.

Spills of fracking fluids and tainted flowback also occur during transport to or from the drill sites due to leaks from trucks. Traffic accidents can lead to significant contamination away from the site.”

Are they right?  Does fracking fluid spill and pose a threat to people and to wildlife?

The  Baltimore Sun reported:  “A natural gas company has agreed to give $500,000 to monitor water quality in the Susquehanna River basin after a Pennsylvania well blowout last year spilled “fracking” fluids into a tributary of the river, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced Thursday.” 

The Huffington Post, reporting on the same story elaborated.  “The well blew near the surface, spilling thousands and thousands of gallons of frack fluid over containment walls, through fields, personal property and farms, even where cattle continue to graze.”  They also point out that the emergency response to the spill took 13 hours.

Is this an isolated case?

According to an investigative report by ProPublica,

“Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.

In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.

EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.” 

Television news station KGNS in Laredo, Texas recently began a news story with “It’s something seen around the city too often, fracking spills on the roadways. Just this afternoon the spill caused part of highway 359 to be blocked off.” 

Seen too often?  That’s not how you describe isolated or infrequent events.  Here’s a story from Scranton, Pennsylvania news station WNEP reporting a spill of 4,500 gallons of fracking wastewater into a creek just north of Jersey Shore.  There are many similar stories across the country.

Keep in mind that the regulatory hands of the EPA have been tied by exemptions given to the fracking industry (see my previous blog).  State regulatory agencies have been complaining that they don’t have the resources to regulate this large and quickly growing industry, and state legislators have been reluctant to regulate an industry that represents a cash inflow during difficult economic times and that is very generous with policitical contributions.

All of this matters – both to people and to wildlife.  The Nation and NBC News have each reported that cattle are becoming sick and dying in fracking areas.  The NBC News story begins: 

“In the midst of the domestic energy boom, livestock on farms near oil- and gas-drilling operations nationwide have been quietly falling sick and dying. While scientists have yet to isolate cause and effect, many suspect chemicals used in drilling and hydrofracking (or “fracking”) operations are poisoning animals through the air, water or soil.”

And from The Nation:

“Jacki Schilke and her sixty cattle live in the top left corner of North Dakota, a windswept, golden-hued landscape in the heart of the Bakken Shale. Schilke’s neighbors love her black Angus beef, but she’s no longer sharing or eating it—not since fracking began on thirty-two oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch and five of her cows dropped dead.”

Jacki herself is also sick.  She suffers from rashes, light headedness, and respiratory distress sever enough that a simple walk to her barn has landed her in the hospital emergency room.

 A 27 page  study of fracking operations in 6 states conducted by Professor Robert E. Oswald, Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University found substantial evidence of harm to wildlife and domestic animals living near fracking operations.  Here’s what the report has to say about one site studied by the research team.

“In this case, a beef cattle farmer had a herd of 96 cattle (Angus Limousine cross) that was divided among three pastures. The farm is located in an area of intensive gas drilling, with two active shallow vertical gas wells on the farmer’s property and approximately 190 active gas wells within five miles of the property; of these, approximately 11 are shale gas wells and approximately 26 are deep vertical gas wells. In one pasture, 60 cows (a mixed herd, mostly 5- to 10-year-old bred cows) had access to a creek as a source of water. In a second pasture, 20 cows (bred yearlings) obtained water from hillside runoff, and in a third pasture, 14 feeder calves (8 to 14 months old) and two bulls had access to a pond. Over a three-month period, 21 head from the creek-side pasture died (17 adult bred cows and 4 calves). All the cattle were healthy before this episode. Despite symptomatic treatment, deaths occurred 1 to 3 days after the cows went down and were unable to rise. Basic diagnostics were done, but no cause of death was determined. On rendering, 16 of the 17 adults were found to have dead fetuses, nearly doubling this farmer’s losses. Of the 39 cows on the creek-side pasture that survived, 16 failed to breed and several cows produced stillborn calves with white and blue eyes. The health of the cattle on the other two pastures was unaffected; on the second pasture, only one cow failed to breed. Historically, the health of the herd was good, the farmer reporting average losses of 1-2 cows a year in his herd of nearly 100 cattle. This is an interesting case because it has a natural control group. That is, the cattle that were kept along the creek suffered severe problems while the cattle in pastures at a higher elevation and away from the creek experienced no morbidity or mortality.”

Critics of the study correctly point out that there is no definitive and certain link between the evidence provided in the study and the chemicals used in fracking (although the study does a very good job of providing strongly suggestive data).  But the question for us as a society needs to be, in the face of scientific uncertainty, and in the face of rapidly accumulating data that at least suggests that there may be a real threat to human health, to our food supply, to our drinking water, and to wildlife, why do we choose to protect profits rather than our safety.  Why in the face of evidence that points to a very real threat do we allow profiteers to say, “We get to put whatever we choose into your environment until you can prove to our satisfaction that we are causing harm.?”  And keep in mind, as the researchers themselves point out,

“Complete evidence regarding health impacts of gas drilling cannot be obtained due to incomplete testing and disclosure of chemicals, and nondisclosure agreements. Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom sweeping the world will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”

In my next blog I will look at the fracking process itself.


2 Responses to Fracking: Part 3, The Chemicals of Fracking

  1. Bruce Winn

    Thanks, John. I hear a lot of people saying that fracking can be done safely. So far I see no indication that this is true, and no indication that the people most closely involved care to make an effort to protect our natural resources, our health, and the health and safety of wildlife.

  2. John F. Messerschmitt

    Once again, Bruce has done as all a great service by providing careful research that tells it all: the terrible danger of the chemicals involved in fracking. An important sidebar issue is how for years our Federal Gov’t has given away leases to energy corportions in total disregard to the envirnmental consequences to animals and human beings. Along with fracking, this irresponsible give away must stop!

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