Fracking’s Toxic Loophole

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drilling companies to obtain Safe Drinking Water Act permits before they are allowed to inject diesel products into the ground to hydrofracture (“frack”) for oil and gas. These permits act as safeguards for public health because they require drillers to take steps to reduce the risk that benzene and related pollutants found in diesel will contaminate groundwater. The compounds found in diesel, called BTEX for Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylene, are highly toxic and subject to federal health-based standards for drinking water to reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. An August 2014 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, “Fracking Beyond the Law,” documented the illegal use of diesel in fracking and described how this practice poses a risk to drinking water supplies.

This follow-up report describes an even greater potential public health threat from a loophole in the law. Because of a gap in the Safe Drinking Water Act, companies are allowed to inject other petroleum products (beyond diesel) without a permit, and many of these non-diesel drilling fluids contain even higher concentrations of the same toxins found in diesel. This report is based on a review of drilling company disclosures made to an industry-sponsored database of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, called “FracFocus,” as well as industry Material Data Safety Sheets. Exactly how often companies use these other highly toxic petroleum products in fracking is unclear, in part because not all firms disclose to FracFocus, and some of those that do withhold chemical ingredients as “proprietary” information. But the Environmental Integrity Project’s research suggests the use of fluids containing one or more BTEX toxins is fairly common.