End Dumping of Fracking Fluids
Rulemaking Petition Urges EPA to Ban Surface Discharge of Fracking Fluids
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should stop the practice of pumping millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals from oil and gas drilling rigs for consumption by wildlife and livestock, according to a formal rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under its regulations, EPA allows surface application of drilling wastewater in Western states without even identifying the chemicals in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) fluids, let alone setting effluent limits for the contaminants they contain.
Surface disposal of water produced by oil and gas drilling is forbidden in the Eastern U.S. but allowed in the arid West for purposes of “agricultural or wildlife propagation,” in the words of the governing federal regulation adopted back in 1979. Thus, the “produced water,” as it is called, must be “of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering or other agricultural uses.”
In the last decade, fracking fluids often consisting of powerfully toxic chemicals have been included in this surface discharge. The exact mixture used by individual operators is treated as a trade secret. But one recent analysis identified 632 chemicals now used in shale-gas production. More than 75% of them affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; 40-50% negatively affect the renal, nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems; 37% act on the hormone system; and 25% are linked with cancer or mutations.
In a rulemaking petition filed today, PEER is asking EPA to tighten its produced water surface discharge exemption to exclude waters utterly unfit for consumption. The group cites studies of deleterious effects on cattle exposed to fracking fluid, including one case where 17 cows died “within one hour from direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid.” The secret nature of fracking mixtures limits research, however.
“We know that EPA is politically terrified to regulate fracking but we are simply asking the agency to exercise a bit of common sense,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that EPA does not even require drilling operators to tell it what chemicals are injected to free oil or gas deposits. “Produced water pumped for consumption by livestock or wildlife should not be so toxic as to kill them.”
Of the 17 Western states that may discharge produced water on the surface, most have more stringent requirements than EPA, which has none. Last year, for example, EPA proposed renewal of discharge permits including fracking fluids for the nearly dozen oil fields on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. EPA has Clean Water Act permitting responsibility on tribal lands. Had the permits been handled by the State of Wyoming the surface discharge of fracking fluids may not been allowed.
“It is a bit ironic that state regulation of fracking fluids is stricter than EPA,” added Ruch, pointing out that the produced water exception was intended for naturally occurring fluids and muds from within the geologic formations, not the new generation of powerful chemicals introduced downhole. “EPA should take notice that industry practices changed during the past 35 years and act accordingly.”
The American Petroleum Institute estimates that as much as 5% of the 2.45 billion gallons/day of water volume generated by oil and gas operations may be put to “beneficial use” such as livestock or irrigation.