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Laws Promising Health Professionals Access to Fracking Chemical Information Probably Won't Work: How to Fix Them

Matthew McFeeley

Posted October 11, 2013 in Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil, U.S. Law and Policy

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New evidence confirms that oil and gas producers don’t always know what chemicals are in the fracking fluids they are injecting into the ground—and it may take months to find out. Documents from a Pennsylvania family’s lawsuit claiming that Range Resources, a Texas drilling company, contaminated their water, suggest that Range could not find a way to identify some of the chemicals it used, even more than eight months after it had committed to using its "best efforts" to do so.* Months into its search, all Range had been able to learn about one of its fracking chemicals was that the company it thought was the manufacturer actually just “purchases it from another company, applies a label, and resells it.”

It can be shocking to learn that fracking occurs with chemicals that can’t be identified by the operator. It also may undermine state laws claiming to ensure that health professionals and first responders can get information they need to treat patients or respond to emergencies. About ten states have passed rules that require companies to give health professionals information on the identity of fracking chemicals, even if a company claims the information is a “trade secret.” Unfortunately, almost all these rules require the health professionals to track down the company who has the confidential information rather than ensuring that information is publicly available. But if the drilling company itself doesn’t even know who originally manufactured the chemicals, and takes weeks or months to track down the original supplier, doctors who have a seriously ill patient stand little chance of getting the information in time to serve its purpose. And emergency responders who need to know what chemicals are present at a wellsite where there's been an accident will also likely be out of luck. 

Lives may hang in the balance.  In 2008, a Denver Post article told the story of Cathy Behr, who became critically ill and suffered multiple organ failure after reportedly being exposed to hydraulic fracturing chemicals. Behr, an emergency room nurse, had helped to treat an injured worker when he arrived in the ER after an accident at a well site that had covered him in fracking fluid. Behr reported that she breathed in chemical fumes as she helped the worker remove his boots and shower. Later, her vision blurred, her skin turned yellow, she began vomiting, and her lungs filled with fluid. For days, the fracking company refused to tell her doctors what chemicals were in the fluid, claiming the information was a confidential trade secret, even though her life was in jeopardy. 

Fortunately, Behr eventually recovered—even though her doctors never got the information they sought. Because of stories like hers, a number of states developed rules meant to ensure that doctors and other health professionals can get access to information on all the chemicals in fracking fluids, even if companies claim they are confidential. Colorado and Pennsylvania both enacted such rules. But if this process takes months for drilling companies to accomplish, the rules may be next to useless in an emergency.

This is one reason why NRDC opposes allowing fracking companies to keep any information secret, and supports disclosure of all fracking chemicals both before and after fracking. NRDC has said such full disclosure is needed in new rules proposed by the BLM for fracking on public lands, to fully protect workers, local residents, and drinking water sources from the risks of dangerous fracking chemicals.

However, if a state or the BLM does allow secrets to be kept, it must ensure that health professionals and emergency responders have immediate access to the information. To do this, the rules should require that every trade secret claim identify the company making the claim and provide a 24-emergency contact number for someone with direct access to the information. In addition, the state and BLM should collect all the information so that the government can provide the information directly if a company is unresponsive or refuses to supply it.  

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* See Exh. 3 (pg. 13) & Exh. 8 (pgs. 42-45).

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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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