Legal Loophole Allows Toxic Benzene Use in Fracking Wells: Report

An environmental group is accusing the oil and gas industry of using benzene, a known carcinogen that is banned by some federal laws, during the controversial hydraulic fracturing gas extraction process, or which is commonly known as fracking. 

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) recently released a new report, “Fracking’s Toxic Loophole,” (PDF) showing how benzene is used in additives in hydraulic fracturing fluids, which are injected into the ground at high pressure to break open shale deposits and extract the natural gas trapped within.

Benzene is a petroleum-based carcinogen often used in diesel fuel, which is banned for use in fracking operations by federal law. However, EIP reports that companies are using what is known as the Halliburton Loophole, which exempts fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act, to get around the federal ban on diesel fuel use.

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While federal law requires permitting for the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, the loophole, named so because it was heavily lobbied by Halliburton, Inc., allows companies use petroleum based chemicals that are far more toxic without regulation, according to EIP.

“This double standard illustrates what happens when Congress manipulates environmental statutes for the benefit of polluters, instead of allowing EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to make public health decisions based on the best available science,” EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said. “To protect public health, Congress should repeal the Halliburton Loophole and EPA should broaden the categories of fracking fluids that require Safe Drinking Water Act permits.”

Fracking Safety Concerns

Fracking involves the injection of a mixture of water, sand and fluids, which the gas industry has fought to keep secret, into the ground at extremely high pressure, cracking shale deposits and freeing trapped natural gas, which can then be removed. Those fluids are then sucked from the ground and often disposed of in wastewater wells.

The controversial process has come under increasing scrutiny over the last several years, as it has become an increasingly popular method of gas extraction with the development of new drilling techniques and the discovery of large shale reserves throughout the eastern seaboard.

It first began to boom in Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin region, but now it has spread across the southwest and the east coast in thousands of well sites in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The EIP report indicates that thousands of gallons of benzene were injected into wells in several hydraulic fracturing operations.

Benzene is so toxic that it is considered dangerous at levels of more than 5 parts per billion. According to EIP, one teaspoon in an entire swimming pool would make that water unsafe to drink.

The EIP report comes less than a month after a report by ShaleTest, which found that the benzene is making it into the breathing air over playgrounds near fracking sites, finding levels that violate safety limits miles away from the fracking wells.

Concerns have particularly arisen in Texas, where residents of Denton will vote next week about whether to ban fracking within city limits.

Oil and gas companies, and mineral rights holders with property in the city, have vowed to take the city to court to force residents to allow fracking wells near their homes, even if they do not want them there if the fracking ban referendum is approved.

There are a number of other environmental concerns surrounding the fracking process. Residents near hydraulic fracturing sites have reported dust problems, and claim that the fracking fluids contain pollutants that contaminate groundwater.

More recently, a number of studies have shown that there may be a link between fracking and earthquakes, suggesting that the intense pressure from the unidentified fluids can cause ground tremors violent enough to damage property and cause injuries and possibly deaths.

Earlier this year, Texas jury awarded $2.9 million in damages to a family who sued a hydraulic fracturing company for being a public nuisance. According allegations raised in a fracking lawsuit filed by the Parr family, nearly two dozen wells near their property caused a private nuisance, exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered property value.

Environmentalists, a number of lawmakers, local communities and consumer advocacy groups have expressed concerns for years that hydrofracking presents a threat to groundwater supplies and the environment.


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