What's in the Fracking Well in Your Backyard? Most States Don't Make Companies Tell

Jeannie Moten and her family live within a half a mile of natural gas wells in rural Pennsylvania. When she and her niece discovered strange lesions on their bodies, they consulted a doctor. “The good news is that it wasn’t cancer, and the bad news is that we have no idea what it is,” said Dr. Amy Pare. Pare decided to take urine samples from Moten’s neighbors and was dismayed to discover hippuric acid, phenol, mandelic acid and other chemicals not typically found in people.

The chemicals may be related to the fracking operations in Moten’s community, but most drilling companies refuse to share all of the ingredients of their fracking fluid. According to a new Pennsylvania law, healthcare professionals have to sign a confidentiality agreement before companies will disclose information about fracking chemicals. If doctors pass that information on to their patients, they could be sued.

“I just want to make my patients healthy. And I can’t do that if I don’t know what it is that’s making them sick,” said Pare.

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Whenever I hear stories like this, I wonder: what are natural gas companies trying to hide? If fracking is as safe as they claim, why don’t they tell us what chemicals they use?

Too often, it’s because officials aren’t asking them. NRDC recently analyzed disclosure standards and found that most states with fracking do not require energy companies to report fracking chemicals.

The states that do have disclosure rules do not demand companies share all the information healthcare providers and community members need to know to protect our health. In 8 of the 14 states with disclosure rules, companies can withhold information they deem confidential without any justification or oversight. Only one state, Wyoming, has a clear process for evaluating—and denying—trade-secret exemption claims. Just 6 states give health care providers access to trade secret information.

With doctor “gag rules” and trade-secret loopholes weakening the few state rules on the books, it’s time for the federal government to create comprehensive national standards.

This is especially urgent now that oil and gas companies are moving deeper and deeper into our communities. Fracking doesn’t just occur on lonely plains or distant outposts. It happens right next to our homes, our farms, and our schools. Operators pump fracking fluids right into our backyards, and many of the chemicals they use are proven to be toxic. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to skin rashes, vomiting, headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, multiple myeloma, and other serious health hazards.

And yet without strong disclosure requirements, people who live next door to drill pads aren’t allowed to find out what chemicals may be lurking in their air and water. In fact, only two states, Colorado and West Virginia, require companies to even notify homeowners before fracking occurs on their property. Without notification, residents don’t have a chance to do baseline water quality testing.  And trade secret loopholes mean that residents may not be able to find out what chemicals were used in their backyards if contamination occurs.

Even natural gas supporters think this secrecy goes against a basic sense of fair play. Tim Ruggiero, a Texas homeowner said, “I’m a drill here, drill now, kind of a guy, but I want them to do it responsibly and respect property owners.”

Transparency is a good place to start. Disclosure alone does not make fracking safer. We also need national safeguards that mandate best practices in well siting and construction, pollution reduction, spill containment, waste disposal, and many other aspects of drilling where fracking is now taking place. NRDC opposes expanded fracking until effective safeguards are in place.

But Americans deserve to know what’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink. And if we become sick, our doctors should have access to all the information they need to diagnose and cure us. Oil and gas companies with nothing to hide should have no problem playing by these rules.