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Should the public know what chemicals are in hydraulic fracturing fluid?

Amy Mall

Posted May 25, 2010 in Health and the Environment

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Most people would answer with a resounding “yes.” Communities across the country have been pleading for years for this information to protect their drinking water sources. More than 160 national, regional, state and local organizations, including conservation, faith, sportsmen and community organizations, have urged members of Congress to support legislation to require public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

Members of Congress are listening. Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman recently introduced legislation to enact a cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. This is critical, for many reasons. Many of my NRDC colleagues have been blogging on that issue. As part of that legislation, Senators Kerry and Lieberman call for public disclosure, on the internet, of all chemical constituents used in a hydraulic fracturing operation. This is a good first step that will help families protect their drinking water.

This week, on the other side of Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Diana DeGette is proposing similar language in a bill to update the Safe Drinking Water Act. NRDC fully supports this effort.

Even top guns in the oil and gas industry have come out in favor of disclosure -- or have they?

The CEO of Exxon-Mobil said “We wouldn't object to any disclosure on the contents of what’s in the frack fluid.” The CEO of Chesapeake Energy said: “We need to disclose the chemicals that we are using and search for alternatives to the chemicals we are using.” But will these companies actually support legislation to make disclosure happen? Unfortunately, industry groups are attacking even basic language to shine a public light on chemicals being injected underground near sources of drinking water. The industry claims that because less than a half-percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid is made up of chemicals, it is therefore safe to drink. They say that these chemicals are: “typically components that can found in your kitchen cupboard and beneath your kitchen sink” and “commonly found in ice cream and peanut butter.” Check out the cabinet beneath your kitchen sink – find a lot of things in there you would like to drink?

I’ve blogged before about why the low percentage of chemicals in hydraulic fracturing should not give anyone much comfort. Last year in Louisiana there was a spill of hydraulic fracturing fluids reported to be over 99% water. A herd of cattle was near the spill; 17 cattle drank the fluid and died quickly thereafter. Also last year in Pennsylvania there was a spill of hydraulic fracturing fluid reported to be 99.5% water. The fluid ran into a stream and killed fish. One hydraulic fracturing operation can involve several million gallons of fluid—meaning that a half-percent can be tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals. Some of these chemicals are extremely toxic in very small quantities.

Whether it’s under your kitchen sink, or in your peanut butter, there is an ingredient list you can check to first determine if you or your kids should ingest a product. Hydraulic fracturing operations are suspected as the cause of drinking water contamination around the country. It’s disappointing and unfortunate that companies would oppose the public’s right to know what might be in their drinking water. If companies really support public disclosure, as some of them have stated, they should endorse legislation.

If you haven't already asked your representatives in Congress to support such legislation, or your local oil and gas companies, please do so. You can contact your member of Congress through NRDC's Action Center.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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