SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: July 21, 2021
SNIP: Not willing to rest their laurels on the theft of the future, the fossil fuel industry is now salting the earth with forever chemicals.
In a bombshell exposé from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and the New York Times last week it was revealed that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were readily used at fracking sites across the US.
PFAS never break down, a disconcerting fact that has led many to call them “forever chemicals”. Such durability comes with surprising mobility as these chemicals have proven preternaturally gifted at gliding through geological and geographic borders with ease. Oh, and they are toxic.
None of these worrisome properties proved sufficient to dissuade the fossil fuel industry from injecting PFAS into at least 1,200 fracking wells in the United States, including in states where wastewater from oil and gas operations is routinely sprayed on roads and farms.
This revelation comes days after Unearthed released a video of fossil fuel executives bragging about just how easy it has been to sabotage legislation aimed at addressing climate change and petrochemical pollution, including PFAS.
“They’re called forever chemicals,” one ExxonMobil executive said, “which basically means these chemicals never, never deteriorate.”
While most scientists agree that such toxic immortality warrants sensible restrictions on PFAS use, ExxonMobil disagrees. According to the videos, company executives launched a stealth campaign to undercut the scientific consensus and surging momentum to regulate PFAS. ExxonMobil’s preferred strategy of obstruction? Commission another government study.
In the meantime, 130 oil and gas companies (including ExxonMobil) have been dumping forever chemicals into fracking sites in at least six different states.
The use of PFAS in fracking “brings together two planetary emergencies”, said Barbara Gottlieb of PSR: contamination and climate. As climate change tips so much of the United States into a parched drought with inescapable heatwaves, what water remains is increasingly poisoned by PFAS.
“We already know that over 200 million people have PFAS in their drinking water. Add to that the additional number of people surrounded by fracking sites in their literal back yards, and you have the majority of the population affected by a dangerous class of PFAS chemicals,” Phil Brown, who directs a research center on PFAS contamination, told me.
At one Encana/Athlon fracking site in Glasscock county, Texas, it is estimated that drilling operators injected 324 pounds of PFAS in a single well. As Dusty Horwitt, the lead author of the PSR report explained, a minuscule amount of PFAS can render a titanic amount of water undrinkable. “One measuring cup of PFOA could contaminate almost 8bn gallons of water.”
As other sectors distance themselves from forever chemicals and the ungodly problems they pose, the fossil fuel industry is doubling down on PFAS in willful defiance of settled science. Business as usual, in other words. And those tasked with protecting our health may be doing more than turning a blind eye to such madness.
In the past few years, the Environmental Protection Agency issued urgent warnings about the diabolical threat PFAS pose to drinking water and public health. And yet, this week’s news revealed that the very same EPA was greenlighting requests by oil companies to dump PFAS into the environment at fracking sites across the United States.
By the EPA’s own account, fracking wells are far from a closed system (a fact viewers of the flammable tap water scene in Gasland will be familiar with). A 2016 report from the EPA on the “Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle” provided extensive documentation of alarming instances where fracking fluids leaked into groundwater. More than 8 million Americans get their drinking water from underground sources within one mile of a fracking well.
Beyond cracks in the bedrock or well-casing that allow drilling fluids to migrate into groundwater, there are more banal pathways of exposure. In 17 states (including New York), wastewater from oil and gas drilling is permitted to be sprayed on roads to keep dust down or melt ice, a reckless practice that elicits strong protests from scientists and communities.
Some states even allow drilling wastewater to be reused in agriculture, a practice many western farmers have come to rely on as drought coincides with groundwater depletion. Even as some states propose minimal processing of oil and gas wastewater before their application on roads and farms, no one is testing for PFAS.
However they enter the environment, once released PFAS never go away. And trace amounts of these chemicals have proven adept at poisoning drinking water, food systems and human health. PFAS chemicals are strongly linked to immune dysfunction, reproductive harm and a host of cancers at previously unimaginable levels of exposure: parts per trillion.
According to documents released this week, the EPA was fully aware of the ludicrous risks of introducing PFAS to fracking when it authorized their use. Agency scientists voiced strong concerns that PFAS would probably contaminate the land around fracking sites through leaks, post-drilling uses and even flaring as PFAS chemicals cannot be destroyed by fire.
Senior leadership at Obama’s EPA overrode these concerns and the precautions scientists recommended, like PFAS monitoring around fracking sites. At EPA headquarters in DC, safeguarding the reckless profits of oil and gas companies took precedence over safeguarding the health of vulnerable citizens. As has been well documented, poor neighborhoods and communities of color bear an outsized environmental burden from fracking.
“I am angered but not surprised to learn of EPA-approved use of PFAS in fracking,” Sara Wylie told me. Wylie, who works with communities protesting against fracking and has documented their struggles in her book Fractivism, continued: “This use of recognized toxics follows a familiar pattern: Safe Drinking and Clean Water Act exemptions already enable the use of hazardous chemicals in fracking that are regulated in other industries.”
In other words, one of the nastiest toxins ever dreamed up is escaping all efforts to restrict its use by participating in fracking and the ozone-sized hole in environmental regulations the Halliburton loophole gifted the fossil fuel industry.
If the toxic chemistry of fracking remains obscured by regulatory design, the health effects are becoming gruesomely obvious. Dozens of epidemiological studies have now confirmed what frontline communities knew all along: a host of health issues crop up when fracking comes to town, including: migraines, asthma, hospitalizations, birth defects, infant mortality and cancer. And that’s before PFAS was known to be in the mix.
“Living near frack sites is not good for your health,” summarized Linda Birnbaum, a former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, at the PSR press conference.
The unholy union of PFAS and fracking should shatter any notion that those pursuing toxic profits can be gently persuaded of the prerogative of public health and human survival. As the PSR report and Unearthed video so aptly demonstrate, the fossil fuel industry is not bothered in the least by the rampant destruction rising in the wake of their operations.
It’s well past time for our elected leaders to cut through this nonsense and hold those who profited from PFAS pollution accountable. Along with passing strong prohibitions on PFAS, Congress should also require oil and gas companies to conduct extensive groundwater testing at every fracking site suspected of using PFAS chemicals.