U.S. lax about chemicals used in oil and gas operations
A U.S. Air Force chemical dispersing C-130 aircraft drops an oil dispersing chemical into the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Deepwater Horizon response effort. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)
In April 2010, a national nightmare began with a blowout into the Gulf of Mexico. But the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill were just the beginning of the disaster. We are still learning about the real damage, which is much more insidious than tar balls and slicked beaches.
Recently, researchers found that the millions of gallons of chemical dispersants used to break up the oil may disrupt the Gulf of Mexico’s food chain by killing off plankton, the fuel on which marine ecosystems run. At the time of the spill, little was known about the dispersants’ health and environmental effects, but oil executives and government officials justified the risk by arguing that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Welcome to the age of extreme energy, which requires us to risk the health of our bodies and our environment just to keep the lights on. From oil dispersants to fracking fluid, the chemicals used in extreme energy all have one thing in common: We know little about them, and what we do know is worrisome.
Take for example the chemical dispersants used in the Gulf. Our advocacy forced the disclosure of the ingredients of the dispersants. Of the 57 chemical ingredients found in dispersants eligible for use at the time of the spill, five are associated with cancer, 10 are suspected kidney toxins, and eight are suspected or known to be toxic to aquatic organisms.
As early as 1989, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and others called for more research on dispersants and their impacts before they could be used in oil spills. Unfortunately, little has not been done, which is why this month Earthjustice, together with conservation, wildlife and health groups, sued the Environmental Protection Agency to compel it to ensure that chemicals used in oil spill cleanups will be safe for people and ecosystems.
Another form of extreme energy, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, requires pushing millions of gallons of water laced with toxic chemicals like benzene and hydrochloric acid into the ground. Once this toxic fracking fluid resurfaces, it’s stored in ponds or handed over to wastewater treatment plants that rarely have the capacity to treat all the contaminants. In Pennsylvania, Earthjustice challenged a proposal to allow a gas drilling wastewater treatment plant to dump 500,000 gallons of water polluted by toxic chemicals into the Monongahela River each day without adequate protections for drinking water. We stopped the plant from discharging anything, and forced the state to issue a revised permit that will prevent pollution.
We’re also working at the state level to pass tough fracking disclosure laws. Last December, Earthjustice helped shape Colorado’s new fracking disclosure rule, which requires companies to justify and certify their trade secret claims. And in March, Earthjustice brought suit in Wyoming state court to force the state to reveal information about fracking chemicals used in that state.
Once disclosed, communities can test their drinking water before fracking occurs and monitor the safety of waters in real time. If there’s a problem with their water, families deserve to know immediately—not after they’ve been drinking it for years.
However, it’s not enough to simply know the identity of these chemicals, whether for fracking, oil dispersion or otherwise. In 2011, Earthjustice led a large coalition of public health, environmental and good government groups to demand that full health and safety information be made available for all of the chemicals used for fracking. EPA is agreeing to act on a part of the petition.
We’ve also issued calls for the EPA to require comprehensive toxicity testing, the establishment of safety criteria for dispersants and careful selection of the least toxic dispersants for application in oil spill response.
Time and again, the oil and gas industry has assured us that the chemicals they use for extreme energy are safe, without providing any evidence to back up their claims. Meanwhile, our air and water are polluted—merely symptoms of a larger problem where we rely on energy sources that poison our environment and health. Earthjustice will continue to work to break the tie that binds us to these extreme energy sources by promoting clean, renewable sources that don’t require us to sacrifice our health and safety.