A report makes startling revelations about how often oil companies knowingly use toxic chemicals — and how often they use them near homes and schools.
Oil and gas companies used more than 45 million pounds, or 22,500 tons, of dangerous chemicals throughout the last year in 477 hydraulic fracturing, acidizing and gravel packing operations in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to a recently released report from the Center for Biological Diversity and three other environmental and health groups.
The report specifies that more than 44 different air toxic chemicals, or chemicals that are released into the air, were used over 5,000 times since last June. These air toxics include crystalline silica, methanol, hydrofluoric acid and formaldehyde — chemicals that have been proven to cause significant health harms, illness and death.
For example, formaldehyde is known to damage the eyes and respiratory system, and is classified as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the California Air Resources Board.
Almost 26,000,000 pounds of crystalline silica, the most commonly used chemical, were reportedly used in the last year. Also known as “frac sand,” it is a very fine substance that can make its way into a person’s lungs and cause silicosis — an incurable lung disease. As this chemical is known to be harmful to the skin, eyes and sensory organs, as well as the respiratory system, immune system and kidneys, and is a known mutagen, its heavy use has prompted concern.
“Oil companies’ own records show they’re recklessly using thousands of tons of air toxic chemicals in some of California’s most heavily populated communities,” Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. “This is the air that 13 million people breathe every day. We need to stop this dangerous oil extraction immediately to protect the air we breathe.”
Release of the report comes a year after the South Coast Air Quality Management District required oil and gas companies to report their use of chemicals, under regulation 1148.2, when attempting to recover oil in the South Coast Air Basin through acidization, gravel packing and fracking processes.
Sam Atwood, media office manager for the air pollution agency, told MintPress News that the regulation was implemented so the agency could determine what kinds of chemicals were being used and how frequently, as well as whether any significant steps needed to be taken to address air quality issues.
When it comes to the these air toxic chemicals, the report found that the majority were reportedly used during the acidizing process — a process in which hydrochloric acid and other acids are mixed with brine and other chemicals to clean out a well or dissolve rock so that oil can be extracted.
According to the report, chemicals were used 314 times in the acidizing process, compared to 149 times for the gravel packing process and 14 for fracking.
Profits vs. public health
While the findings are startling, the report’s authors, including Kretzmann, as well as individuals from Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, and Communities for a Better Environment, point out that the actual number of chemicals used is much higher than what was reported, as oil companies claimed “trade secret” protection more than 5,000 times in order to conceal the identities of some of the air toxics used.
This means that instead of knowing exactly what chemicals were used, the public is only informed that a “lubricant,” “surfactant” or “mixture” was used.
The use of these vague terms leaves the public in the dark about the health hazards in the environment. It also constitutes a violation of California state law and has raised concern among groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, especially since the bulk of these chemicals were used within 1,500 feet of a home, school or medical facility.
“For example, Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas Company conducted three acidizing events at its Jefferson production site, a cluster of wells located in a densely populated part of Los Angeles,” according to the report. “Those chemical-intensive activities took place just 85 feet from homes, 145 feet from a church, and 770 feet from an elementary school.”
Similarly, the Brea Canon Oil Company “acidized its Joughlin 3-D well located in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Harbor City,” the report says. “The nearest home was only 50 feet from the well where dozens of toxic chemicals were used to acidize the well.”
“We understand the terrible health impacts caused by the chemicals being used to extract oil in Los Angeles and Orange counties,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, general counsel at Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and a co-author of the report, in a press release.
“Given the massive volume of chemicals being used so close to where people live, work, and go to school, there is significant likelihood that people will be harmed by these chemicals. We routinely see reports of leaks, accidents, and injury associated with oil extraction,” she continued.
James Dahlgren, M.D., a physician in the Los Angeles area, agreed that the use of the chemicals so close to people, especially vulnerable populations, was concerning.
“Children, the elderly, and people who are already sick are especially at risk from exposures to air toxics,” Dahlgren said in a press release. “Data collected over the years strongly supports the need for special attention to be paid to these populations because they tend to have reactions to chemicals at lower levels than the general adult population.”
Health concerns related to fracking are not widely circulated at present. This could be related to the fact that politicians and health organizations, such as the American Lung Association, have actually partnered with the fossil fuel industry.
According to a new report by Dr. Ronald Saff, a Florida-based asthma and allergy physician who used to volunteer for and sit on the board of the ALA, and Maura Stephens, an independent journalist and co-founder of the Coalition to Protect New York and other organizations, just like tobacco, politicians and “corrupt organizations” are insisting that fracking is safe, even though medical literature is filled with negative health effects of fracking.
The ALA once recognized the health issues that occur as a result of fracking, and even urged Congress to regulate the fracking industry more strictly. But according to Saff and Stephens, “after receiving hefty donations from fracking company Chesapeake Energy to fund its ‘Fighting for Air’ ad campaign, ALA switched to promoting gas.”
Since then, the ALA has promoted “natural gas” as a “transitional fuel,” even though fracked gas “contributes as much pollution as — and possibly even more than — oil and coal exploitation.”
Lack of regulation?
Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity told MintPress that the findings of the joint report examining chemicals used in Los Angeles and Orange counties prove that people’s apprehensions to fracking are well-founded, since millions of pounds of toxic chemicals are being used.
He explained that it was only because of public pressure that the South Coast Air Quality Management District even monitored and created reporting requirements for oil and gas companies, adding that for the longest time the lack of monitoring and regulations on fracking activity made it appear that this activity wasn’t even occurring in the state.
In the report, Kretzmann and his co-authors take issue with the air pollution agency’s apparently laissez-faire stance on the oil and gas companies. They point out the agency’s failure to hold the industry responsible for not reporting all chemicals used, which is a violation of California state law, as well as the agency’s apparent failure to ensure that the reports were properly completed.
For example, several reports listed the names of chemicals used during the oil-extraction process such as “acid wash” or “acid perforation,” but because the individual filling out the report failed to mark “Y,” indicating that chemicals were used, the amount of chemicals used in that operation — no matter how large — were never aggregated in the database.
In other words, if an operator failed to mark a box indicating that chemicals had been used, the report was processed as if no air toxic chemicals had been used — even if the chemicals were listed.
The authors of the report opted to not count those chemicals in their total, which means that the total number of chemicals is likely much higher than the already startling number that was reported.
However, Atwood, the agency’s media officer, says there were only six instances in which the appropriate box had not been checked, and the air pollution agency is working with operators to address the issue.
Another concern expressed in the report is that when it comes to the trade secret chemicals, if an oil or gas company marked “Y,” indicating that trade secret chemicals were used, including air toxic chemicals, that report on the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s website would be blank. “This means a person looking up a particular well stimulation report online will not know whether any of the trade secret claims are hiding the use of an air toxic,” the report explains.
“Despite multiple requests to SCAQMD asking for public disclosure of all chemical identities, SCAQMD has so far offered no information or explanation as to why the information remains withheld from the public,” the report’s authors say.
The authors also note that the data “captures only those chemicals used during well stimulation, not those used during other stages of development, such as site construction, drilling, well completion, conventional extraction, transportation, processing and refining, and end-use combustion.”
“While SCAQMD has not required reporting for these chemicals, many studies show significant public health and safety concerns associated with oil and gas activity as a whole.”
Talking to MintPress, Atwood says that under California’s public records act and other similar laws, companies are allowed to declare certain information as a trade secret — including chemicals.
“What we required is if that a certain chemical is a trade secret, they have to give an explanation as to why,” he said. “We have the authority to examine that, and if we believe that is not an adequate justification, we can go ahead and release that information.”
Given the concerns expressed in the report, Atwood says his agency will “look at the extent to which companies have declared trade secrets and evaluate whether that is appropriate.”
Though Kretzmann recognizes obtaining information, such as the types of chemicals used, as an important first step, he says “knowing what chemicals are being used, where they are being used and the extent of the exposure” is also crucial information.
“If [SCAQMD] has the responsibility to collect this data,” he said, they have a responsibility to take action, especially since “communities are being put at risk and it’s up to the agency to really take bold action and make sure everyone in the community’s health is being protected.”
“What we need is bold leadership from city councils, boards of supervisors and action from local government and keep momentum building,” he continued, adding that the public has every right to be outraged that “health and safety has taken a back seat to the oil and gas company profit margins.”
Yana Garcia, a staff attorney and environmental justice advocate with Communities for a Better Environment, agrees with Kretzmann. In a press release, she said that “vulnerable members of our society like elders, the ill, children and even infants, who are exposed to the daily impacts of oil drilling as well as other forms of industrial pollution, rely on public health and environmental agencies to not only require that this information be made public, but to also monitor the emissions coming from these reported events.”
In response to accusations that the air pollution agency needs to do more, Atwood emphasizes that agency staff are currently evaluating information and conducting select air monitoring at some oil and gas sites. He told MintPress that a report regarding the agency’s air quality findings is published every six months. The exact date of the next report is not known, but Atwood expects it sometime later this year.
Pushing for change
Since the South Coast Air Quality Management District has only required the oil and gas industry to report the chemicals they were using since last June, the report is only based on one year of data. This is why Kretzmann says he plans to keep tabs on information released throughout the next year and issue another report next June.
Although the information is arguably limited, Kretzmann stresses that the information has allowed the public to highlight just how dangerous fracking is.
One major piece of information that is missing from the database, however, is related to how much of these chemicals are being released into the air, since he says there is a lack of air monitoring in the region.
“This report should prompt the SCAQMD to really move ahead with air monitoring to get a better sense of how these chemicals escape into the air and how much [escapes],” he said.
While the report wasn’t exactly filled with good news for those living in Los Angeles and Orange counties, many cities and counties throughout the state of California — including the city of Los Angeles — have been pushing to implement fracking moratoriums in the past year, since the state’s Gov. Jerry Brown has refused to issue a statewide moratorium.
Given that a poll released last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club found that more than 66 percent of Californians support a fracking moratorium, and it was reported in May that the amount of oil in the Monterey Shale formation was 96 percent less than what initial estimates reported, support for moratoriums in the state appears higher than ever.
Kretzmann agrees that the support for a fracking ban is there and there is a lot of momentum at the local level.
For those interested in taking action, he suggests talking to local officials and demanding a ban on the local level, which is what happened in Los Angeles, in order to protect their health and the environment.
As more information comes out not only about the health hazards posed by fracking, but also about the added risks of earthquakes and water pollution, many like Kretzmann believe there will be more talk of fracking moratoriums. But Kretzmann and other environmental and health advocates remind the public that they have to emphasize to their lawmakers that a ban is what they want, since it appears that the number of politicians willing to take a stand against those in the oil and gas industry is quite limited.