A nonprofit research group has found that Ohio’s oil and gas industry has used PFAS, known as “forever” chemicals, thousands of times since 2013. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR ) published a report Thursday, and said state disclosure rules prevent the public from knowing how much PFAS have been used.
PFAS are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals used in everything from food packaging to fire-fighting foam. “And there’s evidence that it’s been widely used in the oil and gas industry for decades,” said Dusty Horwitt, co-author of a report for Physicians for Social Responsibility.
PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they do not break down easily in the environment. They have been linked to some cancers, reduced fertility and effects on child development.
The group analyzed a database where the oil and gas industry self-reports chemical use and found PFAS used in wells in eight counties in Ohio: Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe and Washington.
“However, the number of definitively identified cases of PFAS use may significantly underrepresent the use and presence of PFAS in the state associated with oil and gas operations,” according to the report.
According to Horwitt, PFAS are difficult to track because Ohio rules allow companies to claim “trade secrets” to avoid disclosure of the chemicals they use. “Between 2013 and 2022, oil and gas companies concealed the identity of at least one trade secret chemical in more than 2,100 oil and gas wells,” he said.
A report in the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, PFAS chemicals were used in eight wells in Pennsylvania, although Pennsylvania has similar “trade secrets” rules.
PFAS chemicals are known to move quickly through water. For Horwitt, this adds concern because PFAS contamination of drinking water hydraulic fracturing has not been adequately researched. “We know of only one study so far that has looked for these chemicals in drinking water near oil and gas operations,” Horwitt said.
This sampling found PFAS in a groundwater-fed drinking water well near oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania. Horwitt wants more research, but also thinks Ohio and other states should follow Colorado’s leadand prohibit the use of PFAS in oil and gas operations.
“It’s a very wise thing to do because of the extreme toxicity and persistence of these chemicals and the multiple exposure pathways that could exist from oil and gas operations,” Horwitt said.
Ohio accepts fracking wastewater from PA and other states
Hydraulic fracturing, the process used by many oil and gas well operators, uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals to “fracture” a well. After the initial process, it lifts millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater. “YYou might end up with some of the man-made chemicals (PFAS) in the wastewater,” Horwitt said.
In Ohio, much of the wastewater is pumped into underground injection disposal wells. The state has 245 fracking waste injection wells, according to an analysis by the FrackTracker Alliance, referenced in the PSR report, which accepted a total of 12.7 billion gallons of waste in 2020 from Ohio, of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“There could be PFAS in the wastewater from those wells, whether it’s in Ohio or neighboring states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and then sent to Ohio for disposal,” Horwitt said.
According to the PSR report, gas wells in Pennsylvania sent waste fluids to injection disposal wells in these Ohio cities: Atwater, Barnesville, Cambridge, Coolville, Coshocton, Dennison, Dexter City, Fowler, Garrettsville , Hartville, Hiram, Kent, Marietta, Nashport. , Newton, Norwich, Rootstown and Stockport.
How States and the US EPA are Responding to Emerging Knowledge About PFAS Contamination
According to Horwitt, eight states have set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFAS in drinking water. In 2020, Michigan set an MCL for PFOA, “the most infamous type of PFAS,” he said, at 8 parts per trillion. “So it’s a very, very low level of contamination.”
In June, the US EPA went further and issued interim MCL advisories for PFOA at 0.004 parts per trillion, down from the previous MCL of 70 parts per trillion set by the EPA in 2016.
“At this level of toxicity (0.004 ppt), five measuring cups of PFOA would be enough to contaminate all of Lake Erie, which shows you how toxic these chemicals can be,” Horwitt said.
The US EPA intends to establish federal drinking water regulations for certain PFAS chemicals by 2023.
“When the MCL standards are set, they will be adopted by Ohio and other states,” said James Lee, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2020, the Ohio EPA tested over 1,500 public drinking water systems that serve communities and schools for PFAS substances in drinking water.
“Only two systems were identified with levels above previous HAL (Health Advisory Level), and both resolved issues by connecting to nearby public drinking water sources,” Lee said. The previous HAL was 70 parts per trillion, compared to the current 0.004 parts per trillion considered safe by the US EPA.