For much of the past decade, oil companies involved in drilling and fracking have been allowed to pump chemicals into the ground that over time can break down into toxic substances called PFAS – a class of long-lived compounds known to pose a threat to humans and Wildlife – according to internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2011, the EPA approved the use of these chemicals, which are used to facilitate the flow of oil from the soil, despite the agency’s serious concerns about their toxicity, according to documents reviewed by the New York Times. The approval of the three chemicals by the EPA was not previously publicly known.
The records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from a nonprofit group, Doctors for Social Responsibility, were among the first public indications that PFAS, long-lived compounds also known as “Forever Chemicals,” were used in the drilling Liquids can be included and hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
In a permit order issued October 26, 2011 for the three chemicals, EPA scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that under certain conditions the chemicals could “break down” into substances similar to PFOA, a type of PFAS chemical, and could “break into.” the environment ”and“ toxic to humans, wild mammals and birds ”. The EPA scientists recommended additional testing. These tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were performed.
“The EPA identified serious health risks associated with chemicals proposed for oil and gas exploration, yet allowed those chemicals to be used commercially with very lax regulations,” said Dusty Horwitt, researcher at Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The Obama administration’s documents are heavily edited because the EPA allows companies to rely on trade secrets to protect basic information about new chemicals from disclosure. Even the name of the company the pending approval is blacked out and the records only give a generic name for the chemicals: fluorinated acrylic-alkylamino-copolymer.
However, an EPA-issued identification number for one of the chemicals appears in separate EPA data and identifies Chemours, formerly Dupont, as the submitter. A separate EPA document shows that a chemical with the same EPA number was first imported for commercial use in November 2011. (Chemours didn’t exist until 2015, despite having had the responsibility to report chemicals on behalf of its predecessor, Dupont.)
There are no public records showing where the EPA approved chemicals have been used.
But the FracFocus database, which tracks chemicals used in fracking, shows that around 120 companies have used PFAS – or chemicals that can break down in PFAS; the most common of these were “nonionic fluorosurfactant” and various misspellings – in more than 1,000 wells between 2012 and 2020 in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Wyoming. Since not all states require companies to report chemicals to the database, the number of wells could be higher.
Nine of these wells were in Carter County, Oklahoma, within the boundaries of the Chickasaw Nation. “I wasn’t aware of that,” said Tony Choate, a spokesman for the Chickasaw Nation.
Nick Conger, an EPA spokesman, said the chemicals in question were approved a decade ago and that since then, legislative changes have required the agency to confirm the safety of new chemicals before they hit the market. He said the editorships on the documents were required by a law protecting confidential business information. The Biden government has made handling PFAS a top priority, he added, for example by proposing a rule requiring all PFAS manufacturers and importers since 2011 to disclose more information about the chemicals, including their environmental and health effects .
Chemours, which has historically agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle claims for damages related to PFOA pollution, made no comment.
When asked if the chemicals are being used, an Exxon spokesperson replied, “We don’t make PFAS.”
Chevron did not respond to a request for comment.
The presence of PFAS in oil and gas exploration threatens to expose oil field workers and rescue workers who deal with fires and spills, as well as people who live near or downstream of drilling sites, to a class of chemicals that is increasingly being examined for their compounds becomes cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems.
As a class of man-made chemicals that are toxic in even the smallest concentrations, PFAS have been used for decades to make products such as non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, and fire-fighting foam. The substances have been put to the test in recent years for their tendency to linger in the environment and accumulate in the human body, as well as for their links to health problems such as cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved Better regulate PFAS that pollute the drinking water of up to 80 million Americans.
Industrial researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s when environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued Dupont for pollution from his Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., did the dangers of PFAS become common knowledge. In comparisons with the EPA in the mid-2000s, Dupont admitted that it knew the dangers of PFAS, and it and a handful of chemical manufacturers then committed to phasing out certain types of PFAS by 2015.
Kevin A. Schug, professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the chemicals identified in the FracFocus database fall into the PFAS liaison group, although he added that there wasn’t enough information to make a direct link between the chemicals in the database to those approved by the EPA. Still, he said it was clear “that if and when the approved polymer breaks down in the environment, it will break down into PFAS”.
The results underscore how for decades the country’s laws regulating various chemicals have brought thousands of substances into commercial use with relatively few tests. The EPA’s assessment was conducted under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which gives the agency the power to review and regulate new chemicals before they are manufactured or distributed.
But for years that law had loopholes that exposed Americans to harmful chemicals, experts say. In addition, the Toxic Substance Control Act went into Thousands of chemicals in commercial use, including many PFAS chemicals. In 2016, Congress tightened the law, including strengthening the EPA’s power to order health tests. The Government Accountability Office, the watchdog of Congress, still identifies the Toxic Substances Control Act as a program with one of the highest risks of abuse and mismanagement.
For the past few days, whistleblowers on Intercept have alleged that the EPA’s Toxic Chemicals Review office tampered with the ratings of dozens of chemicals to make them appear safer. EPA scientists evaluating new chemicals “are the last line of defense between harmful – even deadly – chemicals and their introduction into US commerce, and that line of defense is fighting to maintain their integrity,” said the whistleblowers in their disclosure published by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Maryland-based nonprofit group.
David R. Brown, a public health toxicologist and former director of environmental epidemiology for the Connecticut Department of Health, said the EPA had “expressed concern at a level that should have been alarmed.” Of particular concern, he said, in oil and gas wells is that “the chemicals are placed in a high temperature, high pressure environment and that is highly reactive”.
Mr Conger, the EPA spokesman, said the agency was determined to investigate the whistleblower’s complaints.
The concerns add to the risks posed by hundreds of chemicals used in drilling and fracking, which involve drilling deep holes in the earth and then injecting millions of liters of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to develop oil and gas resources.
In a 2016 report, the EPA identified more than 1,600 chemicals used in drilling, fracking, or found in fracking effluents, including nearly 200 that were classified as carcinogenic or toxic to human health. The same EPA report warned that fracking fluid could enter groundwater from wells and that leaks could arise from underground wells that hold millions of liters of sewage.
Communities near drilling sites have long complained of contaminated water and health issues they believe are related to it. The lack of disclosure of what type of chemicals are present has hampered diagnosis or treatment. Various peer-reviewed studies have found evidence of disease and other health effects in people living near oil and gas sites, with disproportionate exposure to blacks and other underserved or marginalized communities.
“In areas where there is severe fracking, the data is starting to grow and show that there is a real cause for concern,” said Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and an expert on PFAS. The presence of PFAS, she said, was particularly worrying. “These are chemicals that are essentially going to be in the environment not just for our lives,” she said.