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Environmental connections to public health >>

Waxman, DeGette Urge White House To Curb Toxic Diesel in Fracking Fluid

Monday, November 18, 2013

Diesel fuels contain highly toxic chemicals, one of which is benzene, a known carcinogen.  Even very small concentrations of benzene can contaminate water supplies. If benzene and other toxic chemicals seep into a community’s water, that’s a serious and possibly irreparable problem.

Congress recognized diesel’s extraordinary dangers back in 2005 when it passed the federal Energy Policy Act.  It exempted most oil and gas hydraulic drilling and fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act – but not fracking with diesel. 

This exemption made the underground injection of diesel fuels illegal without a permit, but neither the federal Environmental Protection Agency nor state regulators have adequately monitored diesel’s use in the years since the Energy Policy Act was passed. EWG’s 2009 investigation Drilling Around the Law found that several state and federal regulatory agencies do not track the use of fracking fluids.  A state official in Wyoming told EWG investigators that diesel was commonly used for fracking in his area. A 2011 investigation by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed EWG’s findings.  It determined that drillers had injected more than 32 million gallons of diesel or diesel-laced fracturing fluids into the earth between 2005 and 2009.

In May 2012, after seven years of delay, the EPA finally completed a document called a “permitting guidance,” which aimed to help state regulators understand which fracking operations required permits under the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act exemption.  Sixteen more months passed.  In September of this year, the agency sent its “permitting guidance” to the White House Office of Management and Budget for approval.  And there it languishes.

In an effort to break through the gridlock, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on House Energy and Commerce and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. ranking Democrat on the panel’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, have appealed the matter to OMB director Sylvia Mathews Burwell.  “We urge you to finalize this long overdue guidance expeditiously and to reject any industry efforts to weaken or delay it,” they wrote Burwell in a letter dated Oct. 25.   “...Industry has taken advantage of the lack of clarity.”

Waxman and DeGette stressed that once EPA’s guidance is issued, state regulators can use it to set up better ways to protect the public water supply by monitoring and restricting diesel in fracking operations.

The EPA has already made some concessions to the drilling industry.  The agency’s narrow definition of “diesel” has allowed drilling companies to use certain petroleum distillates and diesel-like compounds that can pose equal or often greater risks than diesel.  In August 2012, EWG recommended to EPA that it broaden its definition to encompass more compounds.  Such a move would enable the agency to head off more risky drilling operations.  But so far the EPA has refused to budge.

The public won’t be truly safe until the EPA and state regulators adopt and enforce measures that recognize the potential for diesel and other, equally hazardous fracking chemicals to seep out of drilling operations and contaminate water. Without sufficient safeguards, rivers, lakes, and public water supplies could be polluted, people could be harmed, and livestock and wildlife could sicken and die, revealing the true costs of obtaining this so-called "cheap" energy. 

The letter from Waxman and DeGette to OMB’s Burwell can be viewed here.  

 

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