Knowing the drill

By Don Hopey

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)


The American Medical Association, citing growing concerns about monitoring and tracking long-term human health impacts caused by shale gas development, is calling for the public disclosure of all chemicals used in the extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

The new policy, adopted recently by the nation’s largest physicians organization at its annual meeting in Chicago, states that in addition to requiring the chemical disclosures, monitoring “should focus on human exposure in well water and surface water and government agencies should share this information with physicians and the public.”

Most of the 25 states in the U.S. where shale gas drilling and development is occurring – including Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations is booming – either don’t know or don’t publicly disclose all the chemicals used in fracking.

“Keeping the names of the chemicals secret is preposterous,” said Todd Sack, a physician in Jacksonville, Fla., and author of the AMA’s policy. “It places an unreasonable burden on physicians. The AMA feels that if companies are going to be responsible petroleum and gas explorers and extractors, they need to disclose the chemicals they use and do better water testing. That’s not a radical position.”

The industry says it meets all state laws. It has opposed calls to make public all of the chemicals used in the fracking process, citing commercial proprietary interests for keeping secret the chemicals used in fracking as biocides, friction inhibitors, anti-corrosives and acids to dissolve minerals.

Sack said the recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study on water resource impacts from shale gas development couldn’t make a health impact finding after five years of gathering information, in part because the industry didn’t provide requested chemical data. He noted that 8.4 million people in the U.S. now live within one mile of a shale gas drilling and fracking site, and that the EPA found that at least one chemical used in fracking was concealed from regulators because of proprietary claims at 70 percent of the thousands of shale gas wells drilled in the U.S.

“If we don’t know what chemicals are being used at specific well sites,” Sack said, “physicians and public health officials can’t do their jobs.”

The fracking process pumps millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand thousands of feet below the surface to crack a shale formation and release its gas. Some of the chemically contaminated water is pushed back to the surface with the released gas and must be collected, stored and disposed of by the drilling companies.

Some of the chemicals used for fracking are toxic to humans and have contaminated groundwater near drilling sites.

Scott Perry, deputy secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, said Pennsylvania’s fracking chemical disclosure law requires companies to disclose the chemicals they use to the DEP, but not the public, within 30 days after the fracking operation is finished. The company-designated proprietary chemical information is released to physicians only if they file a Right-to-Know request, although in a medical emergency a physician may verbally request the information.

Perry said the DEP is digitizing its well completion reports so the chemical information disclosed by the companies is downloadable, but the Wolf administration has no plans to seek an amendment to the confidentiality provisions in Act 13, the 2011 amendment to the state’s oil and gas law.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a North Fayette-based drilling industry trade organization, issued a statement saying, “Across the board operational transparency is a core commitment of our organization.” It stated that Marcellus Shale Coalition members register drilling and fracking information with FracFocus, a voluntary reporting site, and support the state’s fracking disclosure regulations “which are considered among the nation’s most progressive.”

The AMA action comes after a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public health study showed a “concerning association” between babies born with lower birth weights and proximity to high-density shale gas well development.

“It’s a total hoax to say the public knows what’s going on if there isn’t full disclosure of all the chemicals used in fracking,” Sack said.

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