‘Secret Chemicals’ Used in Pennsylvania Gas and Oil

Oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania are likely using dangerous forever chemicals in fracking wells, without having to legally disclose this to the state. This is making it difficult for vulnerable communities to know if they are at risk of contamination and health issues.

In a report published this week from environmental health group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), specialists analyzed data from fracking disclosures made by oil and gas well operators to FracFocus, a non governmental organization. They found that the fossil fuel industry used about 160 million pounds of undisclosed chemicals in about 5,000 unconventional oil and gas wells throughout the state from 2012 to 2022. The study includes a link to an interactive map of these sites, which are concentrated in Pennsylvania’s northern and far west counties.

“Oil and gas companies injected more than 1,200 wells with incompletely identified chemicals that could be fluorosurfactants, a class of chemical that includes multiple PFAS,” wrote the authors of the report.

During fracking, companies inject a mix of sand, water, and chemicals into the Earth’s crust. This “fractures” the rock, allowing companies to extract oil or natural gas from deep in the ground. Sadly, some of the chemicals used can include PFAS, also known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” they are notorious for their inability to break down over time, persisting both in nature and the human body. Nearly 15,000 chemicals found in everyday products, such as clothing and cookware, fall under the classification of PFAS. Long term chemical exposure has been linked to cancer, infertility, birth defects, and more.

“These ‘forever’ chemicals are far too dangerous to be set loose in the environment,” Barbara Gottlieb, one of the report’s coauthors said in a statement. “Once this toxic genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back.”

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s current legislation allows companies to withhold information about the chemicals they use if disclosing such details would put them at a competitive disadvantage, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. According to the report, there have been very few reported instances of companies using PFAS to state authorities.

For example, only two companies reported the use of a single PFAS called PTFE in eight unconventional gas wells in the last decade, report authors wrote. And because so much is unknown, communities near the oil and gas wells and rural households may be exposed to these harmful chemicals without knowing. And even if only a fraction of the unidentified chemicals used in Pennsylvania’s wells are PFAS this still poses a major threat to public health, the report warned.

In response to the report’s publication, a coalition of organizations in the state published a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro. They urged him and elected officials to adopt policies similar to ones passed in Colorado, which banned the use of PFAS for oil and gas extraction. “We believe that Pennsylvania can—and must–take these common-sense steps to protect the public from PFAS and other toxic chemicals used in oil and gas wells,” the letter said.

Related article: Industry Documents Show Corporate Ghouls Knew About Forever Chemicals for Decades

The country’s growing concern over PFAS contamination goes back decades. This is partially because major companies that produce PFAS buried evidence of medical issues associated with the chemicals for years. But the public is becoming increasingly aware and major chemical companies have been compelled to pay substantial sums in damages. Just this year, major chemical manufacturer 3M agreed to pay out more than $10 billion in settlements over contaminated water.

Federal agencies are stepping up, too. Earlier this year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to regulate PFOA and PFOS, which are two very common forms of PFAS. Some states have independently placed limits on PFAS levels in drinking water, but there is still no federal limit for the thousands of chemicals that could end up in water supplies. And the EPA’s proposal comes after years of unsuspecting communities being exposed to the chemicals.

“We are all at risk thanks to lack of transparency about what our government knows, waste truck-sized holes in reporting systems, and lack of accountability when drillers don’t bother reporting anything at all,” Karen Feridun, the co-founder of the Better Path Coalition said in a statement on the report. “The system is gamed in favor of the polluter. It just makes the case for an end to drilling stronger.”

Want more climate and environment stories? Check out Earther’s guides to decarbonizing your home, divesting from fossil fuels, packing a disaster go bag, and overcoming climate dread. And don’t miss our coverage of the latest IEA report on clean energy, the future of carbon dioxide removal, and the invasive plants you should rip to shreds.

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