For much of the past decade, oil companies engaged in drilling and fracking have been allowed to pump into the ground chemicals that, over time, can break down into toxic substances known as PFAS — a class of long-lasting compounds known to pose a threat to people and wildlife — according to internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA in 2011 approved the use of these chemicals, used to ease the flow of oil from the ground, despite the agency’s own grave concerns about their toxicity, according to the documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times. The EPA’s approval of the three chemicals wasn’t previously publicly known.
The records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by a nonprofit group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, are among the first public indications that PFAS, long-lasting compounds also known as “forever chemicals,” may be present in the fluids used during drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
In a consent order issued for the three chemicals on Oct. 26, 2011, EPA scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that, under some conditions, the chemicals could “degrade in the environment” into substances akin to PFOA, a kind of PFAS chemical, and could “persist in the environment” and “be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The EPA scientists recommended additional testing. Those tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were carried out.
“The EPA identified serious health risks associated with chemicals proposed for use in oil and gas extraction, and yet allowed those chemicals to be used commercially with very lax regulation,” said Dusty Horwitt, researcher at Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The documents, dating from the Obama administration, are heavily redacted because the EPA allows companies to invoke trade-secret claims to keep basic information on new chemicals from public release. Even the name of the company that applied for approval is redacted, and the records give only a generic name for the chemicals: fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer.
However, an identification number for one of the chemicals issued by the EPA appears in separate EPA data and identifies Chemours, previously Dupont, as the submitter. A separate EPA document shows that a chemical with the same EPA-issued number was first imported for commercial use in November 2011. (Chemours did not exist until 2015, though it would have had the responsibility to report chemicals on behalf of its predecessor, Dupont.)
There is no public data that details where the EPA-approved chemicals have been used.
But the FracFocus database, which tracks chemicals used in fracking, shows that about 120 companies used PFAS — or chemicals that can break down into PFAS; the most common of which was “nonionic fluorosurfactant” and various misspellings — in more than 1,000 wells between 2012 and 2020 in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Because not all states require companies to report chemicals to the database, the number of wells could be higher.
Nine of those wells were in Carter County, Okla., within the boundaries of Chickasaw Nation. “This isn’t something I was aware of,” said Tony Choate, a Chickasaw Nation spokesman.
Nick Conger, an EPA spokesman, said that the chemicals in question were approved a decade ago, and that amendments to laws since then now required the agency to affirm the safety of new chemicals before they are allowed into the marketplace. He said the redactions in the documents were mandated by a statute protecting confidential business information. The Biden administration had made addressing PFAS a top priority, he added, for example by proposing a rule to require all manufacturers and importers of PFAS since 2011 to disclose more information on the chemicals, including their environmental and health effects.
Chemours, which has in the past agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle injury claims related to PFOA pollution, did not provide comment.
An Exxon spokesman, in response to questions regarding whether it uses the chemicals, said, “We do not manufacture PFAS.”
Chevron did not respond to a request for comment.
The presence of PFAS in oil and gas extraction threatens to expose oil-field employees and emergency workers handling fires and spills as well as people who live near, or downstream from, drilling sites to a class of chemicals that has faced increasing scrutiny for its links to cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems.
A class of man-made chemicals that are toxic even in minuscule concentrations, for decades PFAS were used to make products like nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpeting and firefighting foam. The substances have come under scrutiny in recent years for their tendency to persist in the environment, and to accumulate inside the human body, as well as for their links to health problems like cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved to better regulate PFAS, which contaminate the drinking water of as many as 80 million Americans.
Industry researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when the environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued Dupont for pollution from its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., that the dangers of PFAS started to be widely known. In settlements with the EPA in the mid-2000s, Dupont acknowledged knowing of the dangers of PFAS, and it and a handful of chemicals manufacturers subsequently committed to phase out the use of certain kinds of PFAS by 2015.