Fracking: A Report from the You Won’t Believe This Department

A few months ago Plains Justice’s Tar Sands Pipelines blog reported on the many rock-your-world chemicals used to dilute tar sands bitumen in high pressure pipelines running here, there and everywhere across the U.S. Lest you think that Canadians have cornered the market on scary chemistry, check out the technological wonder of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” in which a proprietary chemical cocktail is used along with water to recover oil and gas from underground shale formations. This is going on right now in an oil and gas field near you, if you live anywhere near one.

The fracking page on EPA’s website makes the process sound about as benign as cleaning your siding with a power washer, and in 2005, Congress exempted the whole process from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Hm. If it’s so safe, why the exemption?

We reported in early November that the State of North Dakota was posting action alerts for the fracking industry, urging North Dakotans to tell Congress and EPA not to regulate fracking. One problem with the resistance to regulation has been the oil and gas industry’s unwillingness to disclose its chemical formulas for fracking fluids to anybody, including regulators, legislators, and people affected by fracking activities.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) is now getting into the game and beginning to make public what little information people have gotten their hands on about fracking fluid. To back up a second, endocrine disruptors are chemicals that disrupt the body’s natural hormonal regulation, with potential effects including cancer or suppression or triggering of hormonal responses. According to a chart released by TEDX, chemicals released in a 2006 accident at a Park County, Wyoming fracking site included:

  • Fumaric acid
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Xanthan gum
  • Diethanolamine
  • Mica
  • Bentonite
  • Calcium hydroxide
  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Limestone (calcium carbonate)
  • NaHCO3
  • Crystalline silica, cristobalite
  • Crystalline silica, quartz
  • Dipropylene glycol monomethyl ether
  • Coal
  • Aluminum tristearate (stearate)
  • Petroleum distillate hydrotreated light
  • Isopropanol (Propan-2-OL)
  • Barite (BaSO4)
  • Sodium acid pyrophosphate
  • Kerosene
  • Sodium ligninsulfonate
  • Anionic acrylic polymer
  • Fatty acid ester
  • Sodium polyacrylate

This list may be incomplete, and some descriptions of substances were too imprecise to allow analysis. What information is available about fracking chemicals often comes from a document called a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), commonly used to inform workers on a site about hazards they may encounter. An MSDS would not commonly describe the effects of chronic or long-term exposures to hazardous chemicals.

The analysis performed by TEDX concludes that:

When all of the chemicals are combined, 100% are associated with respiratory effects. Over 90% cause skin, eye and sensory organ problems, and 77% are associated with damage to the gastrointestinal system or liver. Immune system damage can result from exposure to 55% of the chemicals and 50% can cause ecological effects (harm to aquatic species, birds, amphibians or invertebrates). Fifty-nine percent of the chemicals have health effects in the ‘Other’ category. The ‘Other’ category includes such effects as changes in weight gain, or effects on teeth or bones, for example, but the most often cited effect in this category is the ability of the chemical to cause death.

Compare that conclusion to an industry blog that likens fracking fluid to “dishwashing liquid” and speculates that Congressional inquiry into fracking impacts may be a “witch hunt.” And then of course there’s Gasland, the documentary about fracking impacts that won a Special Jury Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and has been raising the profile of this surprisingly obscure practice.

A few months agoPlains Justice produced a report on oil and gas regulation in North Dakota for Dakota Resource Council, with recommendations about how the state can protect residents from the kind of serious contamination that’s already happening in the current extraction boom. One thing we’re pretty sure about: you’ll be hearing more about fracking.

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