Oil, Gas Sites Spewing Airborne Chemicals Far Above Federal Standards

Mint Press News
By Carey L. Biron

Formaldehyde and benzene are among the compounds being released into the air around the country’s oil and gas sites at up to hundreds of times the limits deemed safe by the federal government. More alarmingly, these sites are also releasing entirely unknown compounds.

Total Petrochemicals Port Arhtur refinery is shown Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009 in Port Arthur, Texas. Over the past several years, Total Petrochemical's sprawling oil refinery in southeast Texas has sprayed tons of sulfuric acid and carbon monoxide into the sky. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Over the past several years, Total Petrochemical’s sprawling oil refinery in southeast Texas has sprayed tons of sulfuric acid and carbon monoxide into the sky. (AP/David J. Phillip)

Oil and gas sites in the United States, including fracking wells, are spewing toxic chemicals into the air at levels up to hundreds of times higher than federal safety limits, according to a two-year study in six states.

While no direct link can be established, local communities in five of those states complain that these chemicals are responsible for a spectrum of health problems, including nausea, dizziness, sore throats and more. Further, some of the study’s lead researchers warn that the long-term health impacts of these chemicals remain unknown to community members and to the government regulators vested with safeguarding public health.

The investigation is the result of collaboration between Global Community Monitor, an anti-fracking organization that trains community members to monitor pollution levels, and Coming Clean, an advocacy group that campaigns on issues of health and the environment. The results have been published in two parts, one for a general readership and another, in the journal Environmental Health, for a technical audience.

Organizers say the latter constitutes the first peer-reviewed multi-state investigation into airborne toxics near oil and gas facilities.

“Our study clearly demonstrates that there are extremely elevated concentrations of known human carcinogens being released into the air from unconventional oil and gas facilities in five states,” David O. Carpenter, the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and lead author on the technical report, told MintPress News.

“These releases greatly exceed federal standards for both cancer and non-cancer health effects.”

Carpenter notes that part of the problem is that previous legal exemptions for the oil and gas industry have tied regulators’ hands.

“A major problem is that the oil and gas industry has been exempted by Congress for the regulations that apply to every other industry, in this case from the provisions of the Clean Air Act,” he said. “This is unacceptable and poses significant threats to the health of both the workers at these sites and the people who live nearby.”


660 times safety limits

Such concerns have strengthened in recent years amid the massive boom in domestic oil and gas production. There were some 482,000 natural gas wells in operation throughout the country in 2012, according to federal data cited in the new report, and 95 percent of those have been fracked. Further, production levels for both oil and gas are slated to continue rising in coming years.

Meanwhile, the potential human health impacts of this spike in production are hotly debated by the industry and have yet to be substantively addressed by state or federal regulators. The new Global Community Monitor study aimed to circumvent what researchers consider a laggardly response on the part of the government, and instead trained and equipped community members in six states to take their own air samples.

These community monitors were directed to take samples whenever they smelled strange odors or experienced health problems they thought may have been connected to nearby oil and gas operations. Those samples were tested at independent laboratories, organizers say, using federally approved methods.

Of these samples, some 38 percent were found to contain compounds exceeding standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This includes notably toxic compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene and hexane, among others.

Perhaps the most outrageous result came from Wyoming, where levels of hydrogen sulfide were found to be 660 times higher than levels considered safe by the federal government. (Those safety levels, advocates note, do not take into account the higher vulnerabilities of children, pregnant women and the elderly.) Several other compounds found by the monitors appear to be unknown entirely, and thus have no legally set safety limit.

Several industry groups either failed to respond or declined to comment for this story. Yet an industry-sponsored campaign group, Energy in Depth, has strongly criticized the report’s findings. In analysis posted on its blog last week, one of the group’s representatives questioned the researchers’ methodology, suggesting among other things that the bags used to gather air samples could themselves have been the source of many of the suspect chemicals.

Meanwhile, others note that the findings echo previous evidence, both anecdotal and scientific.

“This research confirms what many residents near shale infrastructure have known for a while now – that there are dangerous levels of toxic air pollutants like formaldehyde near facilities like natural gas compressor stations. Formaldehyde is a suspected human carcinogen,” Matt Walker, a community outreach director with the Clean Air Council, an advocacy group that works primarily in the Northeast, told MintPress.

“It’s clear that … residents living near shale gas operations deserve much stronger public health protections than they are currently getting.”


Public frustration

On Wednesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a federal agency, reported that the number of oil and gas production jobs in the U.S. had doubled over the past decade, to nearly 587,000 last year.

More than anywhere else, the EIA reports, these numbers were driven by the sector’s expansion in Texas. Yet despite these significant job gains, community frustrations with fracking’s sudden omnipresence, alongside a perceived lack of regulatory oversight, is gaining prominence — even in the Lone Star State.

During Tuesday’s election, citizens of the city of Denton – where hydraulic fracturing technologies were invented, and reportedly home today to some 275 gas wells – voted overwhelmingly to ban all fracking operations within the municipality. Denton is the first Texas town to take such action.

The website of Frack Free Denton, a group urging support for the ban, prominently and repeatedly cites concerns over air quality.

“Evidence is mounting about the health risks of fracking, and air samples from a Denton neighborhood near gas wells showed benzene – a carcinogen – at unsafe levels … In Denton, fracking is allowed 250 feet from homes and playgrounds,” the site states.

“Denton has the worst air quality in Texas … Ozone in areas with fracking is rising at a higher rate than other areas.”

On Wednesday, Denton’s vote was challenged in court.

Denton’s focus on air quality is notable, and is perhaps indicative of local versus policy-level priority. Even as the public debate around fracking has heated up in recent years, much of the national focus has been on implications for the climate.

Pollution-related criticism, meanwhile, has had to do mostly with groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, after all, involves the high-pressure injection of huge amounts of water, sand and a mix of chemicals (the exact mixtures are proprietary trade secrets) into horizontal wells. The process aims to break up sedimentary rock formations and release small gas bubbles that can be captured at the surface.

A mass of evidence suggests the process runs a significant risk of contaminating area groundwater, while increasingly it appears that fracking can also result in the release of volatile chemical compounds into the air.

The federal government has turned its attention to escaping methane, a byproduct of natural gas production and an especially potent greenhouse gas. Yet there has been almost no regulatory attention, at either the state or federal levels, given to what appears to be the large number of toxic chemicals regularly released from the hundreds of thousands of wells and other facilities that now dot the country.


The health link

Already, and increasingly, many of these drilling operations are taking place in the immediate vicinity of communities. And there is mounting evidence suggesting that these operations are having a direct impact on human health.

“This [report] will solidify the anecdotal evidence we have been collecting for the past three-plus years of residents and workers in the Fayetteville Shale who have experienced health problems including (but not limited to) nausea, persistent headaches, hair loss, memory loss, loss of sense of time, rashes/boils/burning and itchy skin, ear/nose/throat irritation, loss of peace of mind, depression, fatigue, nose bleeds, etc.,” Emily Lane, one of the report’s community monitors, who collected air samples near Conway, Arkansas, told MintPress in an email.

“I, myself, have experienced many of these symptoms from living on the edge of the Fayetteville Shale and working in the area to collect samples and stories from residents. I had my first nosebleed about 18 months ago after visiting a resident … who had been experiencing severe health problems from the air in their area.”

Others who have worked on the burgeoning reports of the health impacts of oil and gas development say the new study plays an important role by allowing community members to create a corpus of evidence linking their own health concerns with preliminary scientific findings.

“This really gets us further down the road of understanding the direct connection between what people are experiencing and the very real health impacts with what is being put into the air from oil and gas development,” Nadia Steinzor, a coordinator with the Oil & Gas Accountability Project at Earthworks Action, a legal advocacy group, told MintPress.

“There is really no continuous monitoring going on at either the state or federal levels directly related to the gas fields. What communities need is for regulatory agencies to take seriously the health problems and air emissions being reported at the local level, and to conduct continuous long-term monitoring so we can get consistent data about emissions.”

Thus far, Steinzor says, both regulators and the industry have been dismissive of health complaints in communities around oil and gas facilities. The EPA was unable to comment for this story, other than to note that it has not yet reviewed the new study. But in 2012 the agency did issue new rules around emissions at oil and gas sites, clearly acknowledging that it recognizes a problem.

At the same time, the EPA has yet to acknowledge reports that human health problems may be resulting from these emissions. State health departments, too, do not appear to have mobilized on the issue.

“If they are going to dismiss these claims, regulators and companies need to prove that this activity is safe, to do additional work to show that it’s not harming people,” Steinzor said. “In fact, we’re finding a growing body of evidence that the air toxins around these sites and facilities are directly connected to health problems.”

The new report is careful to note that its findings do not prove a link between experienced health issues and airborne pollutants. Yet it does say the data “is enough to warrant a more precautionary approach to oil and gas activities – one that places greater emphasis on avoiding health hazards for all people living and working in drilling and production areas.”

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