This week, researchers from Yale University released a study claiming that chemicals found in fracking fluids and wastewater could “possibly be associated with reproductive or developmental toxicity” in humans.
The researchers analyzed certain chemicals that could possibly be used during fracking or associated with fracking activities. The problem, however, was not in the researchers’ review of the chemicals, but in their presumption that these chemicals pose a major risk to humans as a result of contaminated drinking water resources – even though that assertion has been disproven over and over (and over) again.
Let’s look at the claims made by the research team and compare them with the facts.
CLAIM: “Several environmental monitoring studies have suggested that unconventional natural gas development may contaminate groundwater and surface water, potentially leading to drinking water contamination” (p. 2; emphasis added)
FACT: The researchers identify a number of “possible pathways” to theorize people being exposed to the chemicals used during fracking. Thankfully, those “possible” sources of exposure have been debunked by the scientific community as major risks.
For the researchers’ claims to be valid (i.e. that chemicals used in the fracking process pose a legitimate health concern), data on fracking fluids contaminating drinking water resources must be prevalent. But the scientific consensus tells a different story.
Last year, after five years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that fracking and its related activities have not led to widespread water contamination. Echoing EPA’s findings, a 2015 study from researchers at Stanford University found no evidence of fracking fluids leaking up into drinking water aquifers. As the press release from the Stanford study asserts:
“Using innovative techniques such as isotopic ‘tracer’ compounds that distinguish the source of chemicals in well water, Jackson has not found evidence that frack water contaminant seep upward to drinking-water aquifers from deep underground.” (emphasis added)
A major study from researchers at Yale University last year similarly found no evidence of widespread contamination:
“We have found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration from shale horizons. This result is encouraging, because it implies there is some degree of temporal and spatial separation between injected fluids and drinking water supply.” (emphasis added)
A number of other reports and expert assessments show that water contamination is not a major risk from fracking.
That fracking fluid does not migrate upward into freshwater aquifers seems a reasonable and logical conclusion. Consider the process of fracking: after a hole has been drilled to depths of several thousand feet, multiple layers of steel and cement casings are inserted to protect water resources. Additionally, drinking water aquifers are typically only a few hundred feet below the surface, meaning that there is often a mile or more of impermeable rock that rests between groundwater and where fracking occurs.
As for the list of other “possible pathways” for exposure the researchers offer, a number have been disproven or are exactly that: hypothetical possibilities, not direct observations.
In short, there is nothing in this study that credibly suggests that human exposure is actually occurring, because the numerous state and federal regulations help ensure that the environment and public health are protected during oil and natural gas development.
CLAIM: “The biological plausibility for examining the health effects associated with human exposure to hydraulic-fracturing derives mainly from the known or suspected toxic effect of involved chemicals and processes” (p. 2)
FACT: In addition to a lack of any evidence of actual human exposure, the researchers also merely assume that fracking is not protective of human health. What they use to support that opinion, however, is suspect.
One study the researchers include is a 2014 study commissioned by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which reportedly found levels of benzene, selenium and toluene in excess of drinking water standards in flowback water (water that “flows back” to the surface after fracking has taken place). Notably, that report’s data set was only 13 samples – hardly a statistically significant amount, and definitely too small to make any sort of broader risk assessment. Moreover, the authors of the West Virginia report even admit that fracking does little to negatively impact the environment, if it has an impact at all. As the report states:
“Shale gas development generates large volumes of liquid, solid and gaseous wastes. Many are hazardous. Yet, there is nothing inherently unsafe in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. For example, the vast majority of wells are completed and operated without significant environmental repercussions. (p.7; emphasis added)
A second study referenced by the authors is from Dr. Lisa McKenzie at the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH). The researchers cite McKenzie’s work to suggest that expectant mothers living close to natural gas wells experience greater incidence of birth defects. Notably, McKenzie’s research was actually disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as a disclaimer in the report reads:
“CDPHE specifically disclaims responsibility for any analyses, interpretations, or conclusions.”
Additionally, as the McKenzie paper came under greater scrutiny, one of the paper’s co-authors was forced to admit:
“It’s certainly not a conclusive study, and it doesn’t demonstrate that pollutants related to shale development have caused birth defects.” (emphasis added)
The head of CDPHE, Larry Wolk – a former Pediatrician of the Year in Colorado – also added this blunt critique:
“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect. Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.” (emphasis added)
Moreover, several of the chemicals from fracking fluid cited in the Yale study as “possibly associated” with negative health impacts are also found in everyday items. Phenol is used in mouthwash, borax is used for cleaning clothes, and – perhaps most notably – chlorine dioxide is an oxidizing agent traditionally used in the drinking water treatment process.
CLAIM: “Over time, ‘produced’ water containing a potentially more harmful mix of injected fluids along with mobilized naturally-occurring compounds such as heavy metals and radioactive materials slowly resurfaces” (p. 1)
“Our observation that a greater proportion of chemicals in wastewater were linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity compared with fracturing fluids was consistent with previous findings suggesting wastewater produced by unconventional oil and natural gas activities may be more toxic than the fracturing fluids themselves.” (p. 8)
FACT: Once again, it is not the presence of chemicals that determines risk; it’s the likelihood of exposure. There are a number of federal laws in place to prohibit the kinds of exposure that these researchers are theorizing with respect to produced water and disposal operations.
For example, underground disposal of produced water is governed by the federal Underground Injection Control, part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and is overseen by the U.S. EPA. The EPA even admits that underground injection is “a safe and inexpensive option for the disposal of unwanted and often hazardous industrial byproducts.”
In addition to EPA regulation of underground disposal of produced water, some state governments have secured “primacy” over injection operations within their borders, or direct authority to grant permits, conduct inspection and regulate water disposal. In order to be granted primacy, a state must show that its regulations meet or exceed EPA standards, and must demonstrate its standards are effective in preventing endangerment of underground sources of drinking water.
Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), for example, was given primacy in 1983. The ODNR, among other things, sets limits on maximum injection pressure for injection wells to ensure safe disposal of produced water. According to ODNR and the U.S. EPA, Ohio’s laws “in many instances exceed all expectations in inspections, violation resolutions, permitting requirements, safety regulations and other requirements.”
In fact, 40 states, two tribes and three U.S. territories have been granted UIC primacy for Class II injection wells, demonstrating that the vast majority of states go above and beyond EPA regulations to ensure safe disposal of produced water.
Hydraulic fracturing has been used for almost 70 years. Numerous experts have observed that fracking is safe, and it has not led to widespread contamination of drinking water, according to the EPA.
The authors of this latest study failed to establish any credible link between fracking fluids and drinking water sources, or provide any evidence of the “possible pathways” that they alleged for exposure. Carefully handling fracking fluids and oilfield waste is a vital part of oil and natural gas development, which is one reason why energy companies employ scientists and environmental experts. Moreover, strict rules and regulations have been designed to prevent the kinds of exposure that the authors of this study have detailed.
The lack of evidence of any systemic exposure suggests that these systems are working exactly as they should be.