Commentary

State regulators must determine if hazardous ‘forever chemicals’ were used in fracking | Opinion

Residents have a right to know what chemicals are being used in their neighborhoods and what hazards they and their children may be exposed to

A Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. Nicholas A. Tonelli | Flickr Commons

By Joseph Minott

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to regulate toxic “forever chemicals” that pose a serious threat to public health and the environment. Preventing future contaminations from these chemicals is a good step, but there’s a more urgent need here in Pennsylvania. There’s reason to believe PA communities have been exposed to the chemicals.

The EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must quickly determine if and where these chemicals were used in our state – and make that information readily available to the public.

A bombshell report released earlier this year revealed that a decade ago, the EPA approved the use of toxic “forever chemicals” in fracking processes – ignoring concerns from the agency’s own scientists. The findings create new questions around the dangers of fracking and who regulators are ultimately committed to serving. They also detail yet another threat suffered by the communities impacted by fracking here in the Commonwealth.

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In 2011, EPA approved the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or substances that can degrade into them in drilling and fracking operations, according to the report from Physicians for Social Responsibility.

PFAS are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife and do not break down easily in the environment. EPA scientists raised concerns over the hazards of these forever chemicals and called for more testing. They were overruled and the chemicals were approved for commercial use.

The report concludes that these chemicals were used in at least six states, but they may well have been used in many more areas – including Pennsylvania.

State and federal laws limit what information oil and gas companies are required to disclose about the chemicals they use. When responding to the Freedom of Information Act request that prompted the report, EPA allowed the names of the companies to be redacted and the exact mix of pollutants to be protected under trade secrets.

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This is wrong. Residents have a right to know what chemicals are being used in their neighborhoods and what hazards they and their children may be exposed to. If companies plan to use hazardous chemicals, impacted families and groups should be informed from the beginning and given the chance to voice concerns.

It’s just one more example of a regulatory system designed to protect corporate interests at the expense of local communities and the environment. It’s the same kind of lax and unprepared regulatory oversight that prompted last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report that found DEP and others ignored health concerns related to fracking.

Historically, regulators such as the EPA and other state and federal agencies too often have acted more like lobbyist for industry than entities structured to uphold their missions to protect public health, ecosystems and the environment at large. It’s a system that creates significant gaps in protection and oversight for residents and communities that don’t have the connections and deep pockets to influence policies and permitting processes.

Regulators can take action today to start to close these gaps and address these disparities. The new regulations around future use of PFAS is a step in the right direction. Now, DEP and EPA must determine if gas companies in Pennsylvania used these chemicals. If they were used, regulators must make the details of where, how and when available to the public. They must do extensive testing to determine if any land or water has been contaminated.

These agencies have a responsibility to protect the voters and residents that give them their authority. They have a moral imperative to listen to their own scientists when they raise concerns. They have an obligation to foster safety and transparency that protects oil and gas industry workers, impacted communities, wildlife and future generations.

We desperately need to rethink the role our environmental protection agencies play in protecting our environment and our public health – and who actually benefits from policymaking. That has to start right now by siding with communities over corporations and publicizing the details of the use of these chemicals in the Commonwealth.

Opinion contributor Joseph Minott is the executive director and chief counsel for Clean Air Council. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Philadelphia. 

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