EPA Approved Use of Forever Chemicals in Fracking Despite Knowledge of Health Risks

Image: Lindsey G via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

An investigation by The New York Times has found that in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) approved the use of PFAS in fracking despite its concerns of their toxicity. The records, which NYT acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reveal that the E.P.A.’s scientists raised concern about the “forever chemicals,” saying that they could “persist in the environment” and “be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” But the E.P.A. ordered no additional testing. Experts and activists are now raising the alarm about these harmful forever chemicals and the companies using them without the public’s knowledge.

Why This Matters: The U.S. is facing a PFAS crisis, and experts say that the E.P.A. isn’t moving fast enough to stop it. PFAS, once introduced to an environment, remains forever and is linked to serious health problems like cancer and increased cases of severe COVID-19. Recent studies have shown that PFAS is present in the drinking water of up to 80 million Americans50% of cosmetics, and even on Mount Everest.

When used in fracking, PFAS and other chemicals pumped into the ground can leak into groundwater. This ubiquity threatens to worsen or create future health crises alongside climate change. Companies that use PFAS rarely face accountability, but NYT was able to put a familiar face to the E.P.A.’s redacted applicant.

In the Shadows: Because the E.P.A. allows companies to apply for permits confidentially to protect trade secrets, the documents obtained by NYT did not reveal the name of the applying company. But with a bit of digging, NYT matched an identification number for one of the chemicals to none other than Chemours, previously DuPont.

  • Chemours is also famous for operating one of the nation’s most polluting chemical plants in Louisville, Kentucky, where it releases a greenhouse gas 12,400 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • In 2005, Chemours settled with the E.P.A. for $16 million after it failed to disclose the health and environmental risks of its PFAS use.

But they’re not the only company pumping PFAS. The FracFocus database, which tracks fracking chemicals, found that 120 companies used PFAS in more than 1,000 wells from 2012 to 2020. These wells are found in many states, including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Still, because some states don’t require companies to report chemical use, the number of PFAS laden wells could be much higher.

Although the Biden administration has made it a priority to crack down on PFAS use, experts say that the E.P.A.’s policies have been historically filled with gaps, gaps that allowed PFAS to flow into communities and the environment for decades. Some whistleblowers have even alleged that the E.P.A. tampered with safety assessments to push permits through. “The E.P.A. identified serious health risks associated with chemicals proposed for use in oil and gas extraction, and yet allowed those chemicals to be used commercially with very lax regulation,” said Dusty Horwitt, a researcher at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Experts say that the consequences are grave and irreversible. Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, explained, “These are chemicals that will be in the environment, essentially, not only for our lifetimes but forever.”

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