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EPA Approval of PFAS for Fracking May Spell a New Health Crisis for Communities

The presence of “forever chemicals” (PFAS) in fracking fluids is an indictment of the industry and regulators alike.

Oil is extracted from oil wells in the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, on May 4, 2018.

For over a month, noxious wastewater has been leaching across the ground on Ashley Watt’s family ranch in the Permian Basin in West Texas where she lives and raises cattle. It started in mid-June, when a well Chevron Corps drilled in the 1960s (and plugged with cement in the 1990s before abandoning it) burst open. The well spewed what Watt described on Twitter as “super concentrated brine and benzene” into her water supply, the Pecos River Basin alluvial aquifer.

After a month on site, according to Watt, Chevron plugged the well on July 16, but it failed a pressure test and continued bubbling brine at the surface again just over an hour later. Two calves and four cows have died, as Bloomberg News reported, and the well continues to spray onto the sandy land, where the water table is just over 50 feet below ground. “Anything poured on the surface will be in the water table shortly,” Watt wrote. “This is a desert, and without clean water there is no ranch nor home.”

This isn’t Watt’s first tussle with Chevron, nor the first time she’s had to contend with what the industry leaves in its wake. In 2002, after she flushed a toilet at her house, crude oil bubbled up. In 2018, her mother fell ill with adrenocortical carcinoma and passed away mere months later, which Watt noted may have been linked with Chevron’s lack of compliance with well water testing from 2007 to 2013, after a crude oil plume appeared in the groundwater.

The company has said it is committed to re-plugging the leak, according to the Associated Press, but evades responsibility for what Watt fears could be a larger problem: if the same thing happens with dozens of other wells on her land. A representative of Chevron told CBS, “any claims that link subsurface activity to the surface leak at [the well] are premature and unsubstantiated.”

Now, in addition to trying to get Chevron to clean up and remediate her water supply, Watt and others living in oil- and gas-producing regions may have an additional future-facing health threat to consider. In July, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) launched the results of an investigation providing evidence that at least 130 oil and gas companies including Chevron and ExxonMobil have used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or chemicals that can break down into PFAS in fracking in at least 1,200 wells in the U.S. since 2012.

PFAS is the class of synthetic chemicals known colloquially as “forever chemicals” on account of their carbon and fluorine bonds, which take thousands of years to break down and have the tendency to build up in the human body and natural environment. Scientists have linked PFAS to congenital disabilities, preeclampsia, thyroid disease, and kidney and testicular cancer.

Given their properties, the chemicals may have been added to a mix of other chemicals, high-pressure water and sand on account of their ability to help reduce friction and thicken fluid to force the mixture deeper underground and release more suspended oil and gas. In general, wells tend to be injected deep into the earth and pass through groundwater, according to the report. In spite of grave concerns at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the chemicals’ toxicity and longevity, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request, the EPA did not issue a requirement that follow-up testing be performed, which the report attributes in part to the lax nature of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the Trump administration rolled back even further. “The Government Accountability Office has consistently included EPA’s program regulating toxic chemicals on its list of federal government programs at the highest risk of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement,” Dusty Horwitt writes in the report.

The majority of wells researchers have identified as places where PFAS was used are in Texas, with others in Louisiana, Arkansas and at least two other states. Many are concentrated in the Permian Basin: a 75,000-square-foot formation of ancient sediments stretching beneath West Texas and eastern New Mexico, which is the highest oil-producing region and second-highest natural gas-producing region in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.

According to Truthout’s examination of mapping by the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, which contributed to the PSR report, a pair of wells where PFAS was used lies less than four miles northwest of Watt’s ranch, with other wells to the northeast, all on the same aquifer system.

“There’s a potential for [PFAS] to contaminate a huge amount of water or soil or sediment if it were to spill on the surface,” contributor to the PSR report, Wilma Subra, noted. “It doesn’t take much to be present in those media to be a threat to health.”

The oil industry is notoriously a dangerous one to work in or live around. Public health researchers have identified a long list of health impacts and environmental injustices related to the fossil fuel industry that disproportionately harm the already vulnerable, including pregnant people, people with certain health conditions, low-income people and communities of color. For instance, after a 2012 fire and chemical release at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California — a predominantly Black and Latinx city — emergency room visits for diagnoses related to respiratory and sensory issues increased from about 80 daily visits to 817 daily visits in the week after the fire. Globally, almost 9 million people die prematurely each year on account of exposure to pollutants linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

Fracking carries its own set of dramatic dangers to human health and the climate. Since 2014, PSR has compiled a 400-plus page tome of research studies and journalists’ investigations revealing climate and human health risks related to fracking, such as the tendency of drilling and fracking to bring naturally occurring radioactive materials to the Earth’s surface, which may explain why radon levels in Pennsylvania and Ohio homes have risen since the advent of the fracking boom. Radon is the number one cause of non-smoking related lung cancer, according to the EPA. But concerns over PFAS had not previously made it into the compendium.

Brian S. Schwartz, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says determining the full toll of the fracking boom is still a long way off, given that solid tumors (such as with lung, breast or prostate cancers) only appear 20-40 years after exposure. However, liquid cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, have shorter latencies (in the 7-10 year range for adults and even shorter in children), and researchers have begun to link the instance of childhood hematological cancer to proximity to oil and gas development in Colorado, over a time period which corresponds with the precipitous rise in fracking in the U.S..

Many diseases related to PFAS remain latent for decades, as Undark has reported. Schwartz says while the full health impacts of fracking are years out from being well understood, he opposes the practice, noting that “climate change concerns alone are enough to clearly tell us we should not be doing this.” Scientists estimate some 25 percent of global warming can be attributed to methane release, and some think leakage from the fracking process may explain a recent spike in methane emissions.

Meanwhile, the possibility of exposure to PFAS opens a whole new set of labor issues. “I see it as a health crisis for oil and gas workers,” West Texas field associate with Earthworks, Miguel Escoto, who is also the co-founder of El Paso’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement, told Truthout. “They’re not being taken care of.”

The PSR report notes that oil and gas field workers and waste handlers include those who may have been exposed, or may continue to be exposed. First responders, who may not have any chemical safety training, are also at high risk.

Part of Escoto’s job at Earthworks is to conduct site visits at oil and gas facilities, with what’s called an optical gas imaging camera. The camera, Escoto explains, allows the naked eye to watch gases escape and drift or hover in the air. “You can see this river of methane … it looks like a volcano,” he said. Methane, which is 86 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide, does not cause direct harm to humans. But other gases Escoto’s camera picks up, like benzene, do. “[Workers] are breathing in these plumes, these toxins, sometimes without respirators,” he said.

Escoto says in the short term, oil and gas wells, including those where PFAS may have been used, must be remediated, which could be part of a program to plug and monitor abandoned wells — an idea which Escoto hopes the El Paso Sunrise Movement hub might begin to drum up support for.
In the longer term, Escoto says, the Biden administration should ban crude oil exports and declare a climate emergency, which he says would give the administration legal power to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its long-term impacts on human health and the environment.

As for regulation, on July 29, the EPA released its first-ever reporting on PFAS, which some advocates worry severely underestimates PFAS discharges due to a Trump-era reporting loophole. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would further restrict PFAS air and water pollution, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-New York), has not publicly stated whether he will bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, as Maryland Matters reports.

Watt, the Permian Basin cattle rancher, has said on Twitter that she doesn’t plan to take any settlement money from Chevron if offered, and that she simply wants the company to clean up her land and water.

Occidental College assistant professor of urban and environmental policy Mijin Cha told Truthout the uncertainty that comes with the newly discovered presence of PFAS in fracking fluids is an indictment of the industry and regulators alike.

“That’s exactly why these companies should be paying for the long-term health and safety of these communities and these workers,” Cha said, referring to the importance of establishing just transition community funds, akin to the Black Lung Program, which is paid for by an excise tax on coal. “These are things that we should be collecting now, particularly while the companies are profitable,” Cha said. “It will be hard in 20 or 40 years when they’re already bankrupt to try to get any kind of funding from them.”

Cha recently co-authored a report laying out a climate jobs plan for Texas, in collaboration with the Worker Institute at Cornell University. As part of a sweeping program to ensure that the state’s 450,000 workers are not left in the dust amid the transition away from oil and gas-based economy, the blueprint includes an initiative to turn abandoned, remediated well sites into geothermal energy sources to heat and cool buildings, which the report estimates could create 62,500 jobs in Texas over 10 years.

“We’re not talking about some liberal fantasy, some ‘Left Coast only’ ideas,” Cha said, noting the 27 labor groups involved in building out a plan for Texas. “These are very real ideas that have a lot of traction.”

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