EPA knew fracking fluid can degrade into toxic PFAS, approved it anyway

Fracking has been legal in North Carolina since 2014, but because of a lack of easily accessible natural gas and local governments’ temporary moratoria on the practice, only test wells have been drilled. These areas shaded in yellow represent parts of the state where the gas is thought to be present. (Map: NC Geological Survey)

The EPA in 2011 knew that chemicals used in fracking fluid can break down and form PFAS — potentially contaminating groundwater and drinking water — but approved them anyway, even though agency scientists acknowledged they could be toxic.

The New York Times reported the story this morning, based on documents received by Physicians for Social Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act.

From the story: “EPA scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that, under some conditions, the chemicals could ‘degrade in the environment’ into substances akin to PFOA, a kind of PFAS chemical, and could ‘persist in the environment’ and ‘be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The E.P.A. scientists recommended additional testing. Those tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were carried out.”

DuPont was among the companies that manufactured the compounds used in fracking fluid.

Fracking, also known as horizontal drilling, has emerged as a destructive but common method of extracting natural gas from deep inside the earth. Not can fracking contaminate groundwater, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The deep fracturing of the rock also can cause earthquakes in areas that never experienced them before. Fracking also requires millions of gallons of water, which is in short supply in drought-stricken areas in the West.

Fracked gas from West Virginia would be the source of energy for the stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline and the MVP Southgate projects.

Exposure to PFAS, also known as perfluorinated compounds, is linked to many serious health problems: cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, thyroid disorders, reproductive problems, low birth weight, among others. They are also called “forever chemicals” because they remain in the environment.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, microwave popcorn bags, carpets, furniture and grease-resistant and water-resistant clothing.

They are widespread, including in the drinking water of an estimate 80 million people in the U.S. This includes North Carolina, particularly in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, where Chemours has a factory. However, PFAS have been detected in other areas of the state, as well.

Around the same time that the EPA was approving the chemicals, many North Carolina lawmakers has joined the bandwagon supporting  fracking, also known as horizontal drilling. (I reported on fracking at that time as a staff writer at the INDY.)  In 2011, then-State Rep. Mitch Gillespie, was a primary sponsor of House Bill 242, which directed the NC Department of Environmental Resources (now DEQ) to study fracking. “It’s my intention to move ahead with this drilling as long as it’s safe and sound,” said Gillespie, a Republican from Burke County at the time.

Gillespie has since been appointed to the Environmental Management Commission.

Fracking became been legal in North Carolina in 2014, when then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Energy Modernization Act. It had several co-sponsors, including Sens. Paul Newton, Brent Jackson and Joyce Krawiec, who are still in office.

However, since then only test wells have been drilled, and because of the low amount of accessible natural gas, there has been no fracking in the state. Several counties, including Chatham and Lee, have enacted temporary local moratoria on fracking. In 2015, the legislature passed a law, also signed by McCrory, that prohibited cities and counties from banning fracking within their jurisdictions.

The Energy Modernization Act also established the nine-member Oil and Gas Commission, whose job is to adopt rules regarding fracking and energy exploration. The commission has done little substantive work.

In 2018, Policy Watch reported that then-chairman Jim Womack claimed  five people had written to to the commission, alleging that they had been unfairly prohibited from applying for drilling permits in Lee County because of a local ordinance establishing a temporary moratorium on fracking. In their petition, the complainants asked the commission to essentially overrule Lee County government and allow them to frack for natural gas on their land.

Four of the letters contained identical language, were sent to the commission on the same day, and were ostensibly written by neighbors or friends of Womack.

Womack, a former Lee County commissioner, at the time refused to answer repeated questions about whether he helped write the letters or encouraged the complainants to write them. He did acknowledge having met with the people who filed the complaints.



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