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rachelw | Jan 20, 2010 04:49 PM

Yet another group is demanding that the federal government regulate hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), the process used to extract oil and natural gas, because it threatens human health.

In a report released yesterday, Drilling Around the Law, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) argues that fracking could contaminate drinking water supplies "from Pennsylvania to Wyoming," but is largely ignored by state and federal regulators.

When fracking, drillers shoot a mix of water, sand, and (here’s the rub) possibly toxic chemicals into a well to create thousands of tiny fissures in the rock and release the gas bubbles caught within. The process has opened up new sources of natural gas across the U.S.; EWG reports that it is now used in 90% of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells.

But fracking fluid has been linked to multiple cases of water contamination and health issues and the chemicals in it remain largely undisclosed – guarded by companies (and the law) as proprietary information.

In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act -- except, EWG points out, fracking with diesel. Companies must get state or EPA approval to include diesel in fracking fluid.

But it turns out that most state and federal regulators aren’t even tracking the use of diesel. In fact, regulators contacted by the EWG in Montana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Texas said they believe that diesel isn’t regulated, and that all fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the drinking water law. In Wyoming, where state officials do track fracking chemicals, regulators said that diesel is used regularly, with no special oversight.

Why regulate diesel? Well, says EWG,

Deisel is known to contain relatively high levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene – the so-called BTEX chemicals that can pollute water in very small amounts and are known to cause cancer and other serious health problems.

Exposure to these chemicals can cause nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, spasms, tremors, and speech impairments, according to the EPA. A study in the Journal of Oncology concluded that "there is no safe level of benzene above zero that can protect workers and the public from the carcinogenic effects," EWG reports.

Yet benzene from drilling has turned up in drinking water in Garfield County, Colo., and Clark, Wyo., and drilling was implicated in other contamination  cases in Sublette County, Wyo.

EWG also compiled a partial list of other, unregulated chemicals used in fracking (specifically "petroleum distillates," substances which, like diesel, are made from petroleum during the refining process) and it turns out that many contain the same or higher levels of the BTEX chemicals as diesel.

These need to be regulated, argues EWG: if diesel is problem, it’s nonsense to ignore other chemicals which are at least as toxic. They are recommending that Congress regulate all fracking fluid under the Safe Drinking Water Act, require that companies publicly disclose the chemicals they use, and make sure that officials enforce the regulations already on the books.

For some more history on this issue, see Sarah Gilman’s recent roundup, Frack 2, Scene 1 and Laura Paskus’ article on how the EPA decided not to regulate fracking, plus Marty Durlin's past blog coverage. You can also find a recent spate of articles from ProPublica, which are cited in the EWG report, here.

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