California’s Fracking Fluids Tell a Bigger Story

Although hydraulic fracturing for oil has gone on for decades in California and half a million Californians live within a mile of a fracked well, the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources hardly interfered with it until 2011.   

EWG and other watchdogs uncovered the lapses in monitoring the safety of fracking and persuaded the state assembly to pass legislation forcing the state agency to begin regulating the process. Today, California has one of the most comprehensive disclosure systems in the country, not only for chemicals, but also for water use and waste disposal.

According to a new EWG analysis of the state’s public records, drillers have pumped nearly 200 different chemicals into wells across the state since the new disclosure system went into effect in January of last year. EWG’s analysis confirms that hazardous and toxic chemicals are routinely employed to extract oil.

The records show that 15 of those chemicals are on the state’s Proposition 65 list of known causes of cancer or reproductive harm.

For instance, crystalline silica, the most frequently used chemical, is a classified as a human lung carcinogen.  It is a notorious occupational hazard for drilling workers that can result in serious illness.  Breathing the silica dust can cause lung cancer as well as a disabling condition called silicosis, which can be fatal.  

Methanol, used in about a fifth of CA fracking jobs, is a reproductive toxin that has caused birth defects in animal studies.  It is also classified as a hazardous air pollutant, and it can be acutely toxic. In studies outside of CA, methanol has been found in high levels in water wells near fracking sites.

A dozen chemicals used in fracking, according to EWG's analysis, are hazardous air pollutants under the Federal Clean Air Act, and 93 harm aquatic life. There’s little toxicity information about 15 percent of the chemicals used in fracking in California.

Few studies have assessed the risks of fracking chemicals for people who live near oil fields. What happens when people are exposed to small amounts of these chemicals over a lifetime? At this point, no one can say for sure. 

Nor has anyone conducted comprehensive studies to find out whether fracking chemicals have contaminated groundwater. A new state law set up a groundwater sampling and monitoring program to provide some of that data, but we won’t see results for a while. Given the Division’s lack of oversight of the program to protect CA’s aquifers from improper disposal of oil and gas wastewater, this monitoring will be critical. An earlier analysis by EWG showed the wastewater recovered from fracking operations to be heavily contaminated with toxic benzene and heavy metals.

Accounting for the array of toxic chemicals used in fracking, an inherently risky process, is just the first step. Regulators and scientists need to study the quantities, frequency and location of chemicals to come to some judgments about the health risks of fracking and to determine whether drillers are handling fracking fluid properly.

State officials must be extremely diligent in carrying out the new law and regulations to ensure that public health, groundwater and surface water are protected. 

California lawmakers should ask: 

  • Are drillers using the least toxic chemicals available?
  • Are regulators doing their jobs?  
  • Should another state agency get involved?

State Sen Fran Pavley (D – Los Angeles) has introduced another bill to tighten the state's regulation of harmful fracking chemicals. Among other things, it would require drillers to disclose more information about the safety of chemicals used in fracking fluids.   

Pavley has signaled her intent to make her proposal even stronger. We at EWG support the amendment to ban the use of so-called “open percolation ponds” for disposal of toxic oil and gas wastewater. This cheap method of wastewater disposal pollutes groundwater and releases air pollutants. In times of extreme drought and in areas with bad air quality already, it makes sense to end this practice.   

Over the longer term, California policymakers should give priority to keeping more hydrocarbons in the ground. We all need to decide if the risks of harm to the environment, human health and water contamination are worth it.

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