Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle dropped a bombshell on Californians: In the midst of a severe four-year drought, oil companies have been dumping fracking wastewater into clean drinking water sources – with approval from state regulators! But it turns out the bad news doesn’t stop there. The Center for Biological Diversity recently announced that they have found dangerous levels of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals in fracking flowback.
“Flowback” is the term for the fluid that floats up to the surface of oil wells that are subjected to hydraulic fracturing. This chemical soup is a mixture of clay, dissolved metal ions, salt and the chemical additives that are used in the fracking process – which most fracking companies keep secret. It can also contain radioactive materials and benzene, a known cancer-causing agent.
Well, as it turns out, the CBD found both benzene and toluene in the flowback fluid from fracked oil wells in California. Analyzing flowback dating back to April 2014, CBD found benzene levels over 1,500 times the federal limits for drinking water. Benzene “in excess of federal limits was found in 320 tests, and chromium-6 [another chemical known to cause cancer] was detected 118 times.”
Among the CBD’s other disturbing findings: Chromium-6 levels up to 2,700 times the recommended level set by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; at least 100 fracking flowback tests are missing from the state reporting website for California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) – which is illegal; and over 100 benzene tests are also missing.
“Cancer-causing chemicals are surfacing in fracking flowback fluid just as we learn that the California oil industry is disposing of wastewater in hundreds of illegal disposal wells and open pits,” said Hollin Kretzmann, the CBD lawyer who conducted the analysis, in the CBD press release. “Gov. Brown needs to shut down all the illegal wells immediately and ban fracking to fight this devastating threat to California’s water supply.”
About those open pits: It turns out that, in addition to dumping fracking waste into California’s drinkable water supplies, oil companies are also dumping wastewater into unlined pits. According to data from the DOGGR, there are “at least 432 unlined pits are currently being used for disposal of oil and gas wastewater in the Central Valley, and most have been operating with significantly out-of-date waste discharge permits, or no permits at all.”
Discharging fracking waste into unlined pits can threaten drinking water and irrigation sources as well as poison the surrounding air due to off-gassing from chemicals in the wastewater. In Alberta, such toxic ponds have been shown to emit cancer-causing agents.
But Californians are not taking this lying down. On February 7, protesters in downtown Oakland staged the largest anti-fracking rally in U.S. history, calling on the governor to end fracking and other dangerous oil activities in the state in lieu of 100 percent renewable energy.