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An unlined pit holds wastewater from fracking and other drilling operations in Kern County, California. Nets were installed to keep birds from dying in the fluid. (Photo: Faces of Fracking/flickr/cc)

New Study Exposes 'Fatal Flaws' in California Fracking Rules

Science panel's final assessment on fracking notes that the 'toxicity and biodegradability of more than half the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing remains uninvestigated, unmeasured, and unknown.'

Nadia Prupis

Affirming what environmentalists have long charged, a new study finds that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, may be polluting the air, water, and wildlife in California—and scientists say state leaders are not doing enough to protect residents from the toxic side effects of the controversial drilling practice.

The California Council on Science and Technology on Thursday released its long-awaited final assessment on well stimulation in the state, which found that a lack of adequate testing and data have made it nearly impossible for regulatory agencies to understand what effects fracking has on the environment. The council is an independent body that advises the state government.

"The toxicity and biodegradability of more than half the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing remains uninvestigated, unmeasured, and unknown. Basic information about how these chemicals would move through the environment does not exist," the report states. "We lack information to determine if these chemicals would present a threat to human health or the environment if released to groundwater or other environmental media."

But while the study could not irrefutably find a cause-and-effect between fracking and pollution, it noted that some of the chemicals used in the process are hazardous to human health, wildlife, and the environment, among other issues.

"Operators have unrestricted use of many hazardous and uncharacterized chemicals in hydraulic fracturing," the report states, adding that "no agency has systematically investigated possible impacts."

But the inconclusive nature of the findings resulted in an unambiguous judgment from the researchers: stop fracking—even just for now.

As the Los Angeles Times writes:

Jane Long, the report's co-lead, said officials should fully understand the toxicity and environmental profiles of all chemicals before allowing them to be used in California's oil operations.

...Seth Shonkoff, lead author on the public health sections of the report, said he was surprised to learn during his research that recycled wastewater from oil fields was being used on crops.

“We've got to know what to test for … to know that what we are putting onto the crops is safe,” he said. “Until we have that data, I don't know how we can assure farmers and consumers that their food is safe.”

As the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) pointed out in a press release on Thursday, "[m]illions of Californians near active oil and gas wells, which exposes them to the air pollutants identified in the report."

More than half of wastewater from fracked oil wells in the state is disposed of in more than 900 open pits throughout the state, which could pollute groundwater, the report found. Many of those pits—about one-third of which don't have proper permits—are concentrated around the San Joaquin Valley, where a majority of fracking operations take place.

CBD also noted that the report comes just a week after California Governor Jerry Brown's "oil officials" finalized new fracking regulations that do not consider adequate safeguards for public health.

"This disturbing study exposes fatal flaws in Gov. Brown’s weak fracking rules," said CBD's Hollin Kretzmann. "Oil companies are fouling the air we breathe and using toxic chemicals that endanger our dwindling drinking water. The millions of people near these polluting wells need an immediate halt to fracking and other dangerous oil company practices."

Brown has also come under fire from green groups for his approach to the state's unprecedented drought, now entering its fourth year. Environmental advocates have criticized the governor's mandatory water cuts for urban customers and communities, while giving leeway to the fossil fuel and agriculture industries which together use up more than 80 percent of the state's water.

The report's "troubling findings send a clear message to Gov. Brown that it’s time to ban fracking and rein in our state’s out-of-control oil industry," Kretzmann said on Thursday. "California should follow the example set by New York, which wisely banned fracking after health experts there concluded this toxic technique was just too dangerous."

Other findings in the report include:

  • Fracking uses chemicals such as strong acids, biocides, and solvents, which present "significant hazard to aquatic species and other wildlife, particularly when released into surface water";
  • The health and environmental impacts of the wastewater dumped into open pits throughout the state "would be extremely difficult to predict, because there are so many possible chemicals, and the environmental profiles of many of them are unmeasured";
  • Offshore oil operations are dumping wastewater directly into the ocean, which violates rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA);
  • California does not regulate how close a fracking well can be to schools, homes, or daycare facilities.

In response to the report, Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) said she would add an amendment to a recently introduced bill that would eliminate wastewater disposal pits.

But green groups see that as only one of the necessary steps.

"This study exposes California’s oil producers as the polluters that they are," Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas program manager for Clean Water Action, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The science clearly identifies numerous threats from fracking and other oil-production activities that California’s laws, regulations, enforcement and available data do not adequately address."

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