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EPA Approved Harmful PFAS Chemicals For Fracking 9 Years After Toxicity Was Understood

Analies Dyjak @ Wednesday, August 25, 2021 at 3:03 pm -0400

 

Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy & Perspectives   

A report earlier this month revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of PFAS chemicals for fracking, back in 2011. PFAS are a category of cancer-causing chemicals that were used in consumer products like Scotchgard, non-stick pans, water repelling clothing, and commercial products like fire fighting foam and Teflon. Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer being produced, or have been phased out because of their known impacts on human health. However, many other types of PFAS chemicals are still being used, and their widespread environmental damages are just beginning to be understood. These recent findings call into question why EPA approved harmful chemicals for an industry that is already a well known groundwater polluter.

How Does Fracking Pollute Water?

Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘fracking’ is a type of oil shale and natural gas extraction, where a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand are injected into the ground to push out trapped oil and gas. Each free-standing fracking rig can stretch 4 miles horizontally in each direction. Fluid leaks, wastewater mismanagement, and well construction can contaminate surrounding groundwater and soil. The process of hydraulic fracturing also uses a huge amount of water, which is less than ideal during a nationwide drought. Anywhere from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water are used to frack one free-standing well. 

Fracking Liquids Are Toxic, Carcinogenic, and Protected By Proprietary Claims

There are quite literally thousands of different chemicals that are used during the hydraulic fracturing process, and each has a different job to assist with oil and gas extraction. For example, acids help to dissolve minerals and other impediments to make the oil and gas flow faster through the ground. Corrosion inhibitors make sure that steel isn’t being damaged by other potentially corrosive fracking liquids. EPA identified 1,084 different fracking chemicals between 2005 and 2013 - many of which were protected under proprietary claims. 

Why Are PFAS Both Problematic and Effective?

When EPA approved the use of PFAS for fracking in 2011, scientists had already flagged their concerns years prior. EPA scientists responded to a consent order and ultimately advised the agency for more studies before authorizing their use for fracking. According to the New York Times, these studies were never completed and the administration gave companies the greenlight. So, what makes PFAS different from benzene, methanol and formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals used by the fracking industry? There are two reasons why PFAS are so problematic: first, they persist in the environment for decades and can travel through water and soil without breaking down. Second, scientists already knew how dangerous these chemicals were before EPA approved their use in fracking. We know this because of the report based on a recent Freedom of Information Act request, and because companies started phasing out PFAS in 2002, 9 years before they were used in fracking. 

Fracking companies were desperate to use PFAS because of their effectiveness. PFAS are extremely hydrophobic, and help separate oil and gas from other properties used during the extraction process. This was such an attractive cost-saving measure that was too good to pass up.

Fracking is One of The Least Regulated Industries in the U.S.

The fracking industry is exempt from all sorts of reporting and disclosure requirements. In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney called on Congress to ensure that the fracking industry would be safe from potential future regulations. Ironically, Vice President Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton - one of the largest fracking companies in U.S. - directly before taking office. Congress ultimately passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005, which prevented fracking liquids from being regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In the regulatory world, we like to call this the Halliburton Loophole

Pollution From Fracking is More Widespread Than Previously Thought

Fracking was previously believed to only pollute nearby groundwater, but a recent study found that fracking liquids have made their way into surface waters as well. The study sites inadequately treated wastewater, fluid leaks, and flowbacks as the main sources of surface water contamination. Surface water, like lakes, rivers, and streams, are used by municipalities across the country for drinking water and recreational activities. The correlation between fracking and surface water pollution is concerning with the recent PFAS findings from EPA. 

Hydroviv filters are NSF certified to remove PFAS chemicals, and out-competed major brands in a recent Duke University PFAS removal study

Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
Health Effects of PFAS Exposure
Drinking Water Supplies Risk Contamination From Toxic Waste Ponds
Are Endocrine Disruptors in Your Tap Water?

What You Need To Know About PFAS Chemicals in Rainwater:

Christina Liu @ Monday, July 26, 2021 at 6:06 pm -0400
Researchers across the country have begun studying the presence of PFAS chemicals in rainwater. This phenomenon comes at a time when Congress and health officials are making important decisions about this toxic contaminant. PFAS or ‘forever chemicals’ are now believed to be present in all major U.S. water supplies. Our team discusses everything you need to know about the most recent research and what PFAS in rainwater means for you. 

Why Does My Tap Water Taste Like Dirt? 

Christina Liu @ Thursday, June 24, 2021 at 7:45 pm -0400
Reports that drinking water tastes "earthy" or like "dirt" has become more frequent, especially in areas affected by drought and with significantly reduced surface water levels. This is most commonly caused by geosmin, a chemical that's not toxic or harmful at levels in drinking water, but causing an unpleasant taste. Click to learn more.

Drinking Water Supplies Risk Contamination from Toxic Wastewater Ponds

Christina Liu @ Friday, June 18, 2021 at 2:55 pm -0400
The leaking phosphogypsum waste pond that nearly collapsed recently in Florida once again shines a spotlight on the dangers and near-disasters posed by wastewater ponds throughout the country and their impacts on drinking water. These toxic waste ponds are not only created from phosphate mining, but used at power plants (coal ash) and large-scale agricultural facilities (such as manure from hog farming).  

Surface Water: What You Need To Know

Analies Dyjak @ Tuesday, September 4, 2018 at 11:56 am -0400

 Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

Surface water is an extremely important natural resource. From the water we drink, give to our pets, and use for recreation, we are dependent on its various uses. Surface water is continuously being threatened by anthropogenic activities. It’s extremely difficult and costly for municipal treatment facilities to keep up with new contaminants that are polluting waterways every single day. Additionally, federal regulations don’t reflect the large scope of surface water pollution. This blog post discusses the various threats to surface water and why humans should care.

What Is Surface Water?

Lakes, oceans, streams, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and wetlands are the various types of surface water. Freshwater sources are responsible for providing potable drinking water to 84% of the nations population. Surface water is different from groundwater because it has the ability to disperse and become diluted as it travels throughout a body of water. Groundwater aquifers are essentially holding tanks for highly concentrated contamination. There’s less room for contaminants to move around, and less volume for the contamination to become less concentrated. 

How Does Surface Water Become Polluted?

Surface water is extremely susceptible to pollution because it occupies such a large portion of the earth’s surface. Surface water pollution is almost entirely the result of human activities. Agriculture, mining, factory effluent, landfills, human/animal waste and localized pollution are just some of the most common sources of surface water pollution. Topography and geological formations create natural surface water runoff, but human manipulation of the land increases flow rates and overall contamination.

  • Point source pollution comes from an easily identifiable source, like a factory or sewage treatment plant. Point source pollution is discharged through a pipeline, ditch, or any “discrete conveyance” that directly or indirectly enters a body of water. Point sources are typically regulated by National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

  • Non-point source pollution is much harder to regulate because the source is not easily identifiable. Agricultural and stormwater runoff are the two most common types of nonpoint source pollution. Heavy rain events cause contaminants to runoff from roads and fields, collecting debris and pollution as it travels into a body of water.

How Do You Mitigate Surface Water Pollution?

It’s expensive and nearly impossible to mitigate a contaminant once it has entered surface water. For some contaminants, the solution is typically self-mitigating. A contaminant will become diluted to extremely small concentrations after it has traveled and dispersed throughout a body of water. Additionally, some contaminants are still extremely toxic at very small concentrations. There are also several persistent contaminants that never fully decompose in nature (PCBs, DDT and Dioxin), or take hundreds of years to degrade. As we’ve seen in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Maplewood, Minnesota, municipal water treatment facilities are only equipped to remove certain types and quantities of surface water contamination.

What Is Currently The Biggest Threat To Surface Water?

Man-made compounds are one of the largests threats to drinking water sources. Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a category of man-made “emerging contaminants,” which means they have been detected in the environment but the risk to human health is not well-understood. Chemicals such as GenX, PFOA, and PFOS are all common contaminants that fall under the category of PFAS. DuPont, Chemours, and 3M have been using variations of these chemicals in industrial and consumer products since the early 1950’s. Scotchgard, Teflon, firefighting foam, metal plating, heat/water repellent chemicals, and stain resistant fabrics are common uses of PFAS. They are extremely persistent in the environment, which means they do not readily degrade. PFAS effluent is either directly dumped from a factory into surface water or a dug ditch, which will then percolate into groundwater. This is allowed because PFAS are unregulated by the federal government.

North Carolina’s Cape Fear River has been unknowingly experiencing surface water contamination for years. A Chemours plant located in Fayetteville, North Carolina, had been discharging various types of PFAS into the Cape Fear River since the 1980's. The Cape Fear is the primary drinking water source for residents of Brunswick and New Hanover County. Their water resource is now tainted with a dangerous contaminant that's unregulated by the federal government.

Algal Blooms and Surface Water

Algal blooms are another major threat to surface water. An influx of nutrients or heat can increase the quantity of algae. Often, this overload of nutrients is the result of agricultural fertilizer runoff. Harmful Algal Blooms or HABs occur after an influx of nutrients or a sudden increase in water temperature. HABs can then produce cyanotoxins, which are harmful to humans and the environment.

How Can I Protect Surface Water?

Protecting surface water from contamination will not only improve drinking water quality, but also valuable habitats. Here are some tips for local level surface water management:
  • Watershed Management: Municipalities should look at watersheds as an entire system, rather than exclusively a water resource. Watershed management surveys the land surrounding a body of water to determine the natural flows and influxes.
  • Eliminating Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fertilizers: What’s bad for plants and animals, is also bad for humans. This category of surface water pollution runs-off directly into surrounding bodies of water and effects fragile surface water ecosystems. Reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers will reduce the amount of necessary additives by municipal water treatment facilities to eliminate contaminants.
  • Reduce Impervious Surfaces: Impervious surface is any type of ground cover that prevents water from infiltrating into the ground. Pavement or asphalt is the best example. Impervious surface increases runoff flow rates into surface water, and prevents groundwater from naturally filtering contaminants. Next time you’re thinking about paving your driveway, consider a pervious alternative such as porous asphalt or pervious concrete.
  • Hold Municipalities Accountable: Stay current with commercial and industrial development within your community. Public comment periods are required prior to development and prior to obtaining a NPDES permit. Companies are required to address each question and concern individually, so if development plans raise personal concern, don’t be afraid to utilize the public comment period.
Other Articles We Think You Might Enjoy:
Groundwater: What You Need To Know
Timeline Of GenX Contamination In The Cape Fear River
Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule