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Toxic fracking fluids revealed in Congressional report

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What's in that fracking fluid? Democrats within the House Energy & Commerce Committee release a report detailing many toxins found within fluids used during natural gas drilling practices.

A Congressional report released over the weekend found that the country's leading natural gas drilling companies pumped toxic chemicals into the ground during hydraulic fracturing.

Written by Henry Waxman (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), the report is the latest in a long line of investigations into the controversial drilling practice.

“Hydrofracking,” or “fracking,” helps drillers access large supplies of natural gas held within the country's shale formations. The report states, however, that drilling operations within 13 states injected 780 million gallons of fracking fluids (not including water which is also used) into wells over a four-year time frame. Many of the chemicals listed within the fluids are toxic.

Representative Waxman says in a statement:

Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health. This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.

Hydrofracking involves injecting water and sand into natural gas wells at high pressure. This is done to fracture tight shale formations and release the natural gas trapped within them. That the chemicals could leach into groundwater is the main concern, and something the EPA has been looking deeper into.

Environmentalists and regulators have criticized drilling companies for not disclosing the contents of their fracking fluids. Earlier this year, my colleague David Worthington discussed the injection of diesel fuel into wells during fracking operations.

From the most recent report, which was released a few days earlier than scheduled:

Between 2005 and 2009, the 14 leading hydraulic fracturing companies in the United States used over 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 compounds. More than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.

.......

The most widely used chemical in hydraulic fracturing during this time period, as measured by the number of compounds containing the chemical, was methanol. Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Some of the other most widely used chemicals were isopropyl alcohol (used in 274 products), 2-butoxyethanol (used in 126 products), and ethylene glycol (used in 119 products).

An attorney from Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several gas drilling companies, told the New York Times on Saturday that the report's numbers were skewed regarding the volume of the fluids and the volumes of the toxins within the fluids. The Times reports:

Some ingredients mixed into the hydraulic fracturing fluids were common and generally harmless, like salt and citric acid. Others were unexpected, like instant coffee and walnut hulls, the report said. Many ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead.

Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals, including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. The companies used the highest volume of fluids containing one or more carcinogens in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

Last month, Texas saw a bill introduced to its state legislature that would require companies drilling in the state to publicly disclose the chemicals they use. Other states—including Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania—have passed similar measures.

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Image: flickr_arimoore

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure