Physicians Group Uncovers Evidence that ‘Forever Chemicals’ (PFAS) Have Been Used in Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wells; Full Extent of Use Obscured by Thousands of Trade Secret Claims January 31, 2022
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New Report from Physicians for Social Responsibility Shows Previously Unpublicized Use of PFAS in Fracking in Colorado between 2011 – 2021, but Gaps in Disclosure Rules Limit Public’s Ability to Know Full Extent of Use
Oil and Gas Companies Withheld Fracking Chemical Identities from Public in More than 12,000 Colorado Wells over Past Decade; Interactive Map Shows Locations
Washington, DC – A new report, released today by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), presents previously unpublicized evidence that energy firms have used a class of extremely toxic chemicals known as PFAS in Colorado oil and gas wells since at least 2008.
Colorado law allows oil and gas companies to withhold fracking chemical identities from the public and from regulators by claiming them as “trade secrets.” As the report documents, companies have utilized that provision thousands of times to avoid disclosing exactly what chemicals they use. This secrecy prevents the public from knowing how widely PFAS – or other toxic chemicals – have been used in oil and gas wells, raising concerns that Coloradans are unknowingly exposed to dangerous hazardous substances.
PFAS, formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been linked to cancer, birth defects, pre-eclampsia, and other serious health effects. Toxic in minuscule concentrations, they accumulate inside the human body and do not break down in the environment – hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.”
PSR’s research found evidence of both PTFE and fluorosurfactant use in oil and gas extraction in Colorado. While the production, use and disposal of PTFE are of concern, fluorosurfactants may pose a greater risk to health and the environment because they are more soluble, therefore more mobile in soil and water.
The report, Fracking with “Forever Chemicals” in Colorado, draws on PSR’s analysis of data in the nongovernmental FracFocus database, the official repository for Colorado’s hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) chemical disclosure. PSR found that PFAS has been used in Colorado oil and gas wells for fracking and in a separate extraction technique called enhanced oil recovery in 10 Colorado counties, with most of that use occurring in Weld and Garfield Counties.
However, the number of cases of PFAS use that could be definitively identified may significantly underrepresent the extent of PFAS use in the state. Between 2011 and 2021, oil and gas companies claimed trade secret privileges in more than 12,000 wells across 31 Colorado counties. Furthermore, oil and gas companies in the state are not required to publicly disclose chemicals used in other stages or methods of oil and gas extraction.
These disclosure gaps raise the potential that Coloradans may be exposed to PFAS and other toxic chemicals from hundreds or thousands of oil and gas wells.
“Coloradans should not have to guess what dangerous chemicals are going into oil and gas wells, especially now that we know some of these chemicals are PFAS,” stated report lead author Dusty Horwitt. “Colorado officials should move quickly to require full disclosure of the chemicals used in oil and gas operations, identify where PFAS and other toxic chemicals have been used, and take additional steps to protect the public.”
“The oil and gas industry is hiding behind ‘trade secret’ secrecy laws,” added Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s Environment & Health Program Director and report coauthor. “That shouldn’t be allowed, especially given what we have uncovered about the effects these toxic ‘forever chemicals’ have on human health and the environment.”
“PFAS have negative health effects, including cancer, that encompass virtually every system in the human body: the immune system, our reproductive systems, the liver, kidneys,” stated Linda Birnbaum, a board-certified toxicologist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “The potential that these chemicals are being used in oil and gas operations should prompt regulators to take swift action to investigate the extent of this use, pathways of exposure, and whether people are being harmed.”
“The fact that PFAS are being used at all in oil and gas wells is an issue,” said John Spear, professor of environmental engineering specializing in microbiology at the Colorado School of Mines. “As a microbiologist, we know that the subsurface of the Earth is fully alive—with microbes. The subsurface behaves as its own organ for the organism that we call Earth. In addition, to risk polluting and environmentally degrading the subsurface with PFAS is to jeopardize the groundwater that we rely on for drinking and agriculture.”
PSR’s findings in Colorado build on a report PSR published in July 2021 which reported that oil and gas companies fracked more than 1,200 oil and gas wells in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming with PFAS or chemicals that could degrade into PFAS.
On Wednesday, February 2, at 2 pm Mountain Time, Physicians for Social Responsibility will host a webinar where report findings will be presented. Speakers will be:
- Dusty Horwitt, author, researcher and attorney. Horwitt, now consulting for PSR, has researched chemical use in the oil and gas industry for over a decade. His reports and investigations have received media coverage in the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Charleston Gazette, and ProPublica.
- Sonya Lunder, Senior Toxics Policy Advisor, Sierra Club, based in Boulder, Colorado
Representatives of the press will have the opportunity to direct questions to the speakers.