Still Fuming: New EPA Natural Gas Rules Leave Communities at Risk

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued two urgently needed standards that will limit dangerous air pollution from natural gas wells including those that are hydraulically fractured (“fracked”).  These rules are an improvement over the status quo but fall short of providing the full clean-up needed for this industry – particularly for communities already living with the toxic legacy of these facilities.  Alarmingly, EPA backpedaled on protections from cancer causing benzene emissions and will continue to allow a loophole that puts communities at risk. 

The science on the health threats posed by this industry is mounting.  Current practices bring industrial pollution into the backyards, playgrounds, and schoolyards of communities across the country raising the risk of cancer, respiratory diseases and neurological problems.  Thanks to years of work by WildEarth Guardians and San Juan Citizens Alliance on behalf of these communities, the EPA has finally taken some action to limit pollution from this industry. 

The good news is that the standards require modern pollution controls for new natural gas wells and associated facilities that actually saves the industry money and add a few requirements – for leak detection, monitoring, and small glycol dehydrators - at existing facilities. Although these are much needed improvements, communities living with existing facilities will still be at significant risk. Strong federal safeguards are needed to ensure equal protection across the country and protect against patchwork protections provided by differing state laws.

Legal and health experts across the country will be closely scrutinizing these new standards. But at first glance here’s a summary of major flaws in the standards that endanger children and families across the country.

  • There is a 2.5 year delay before requirements kick in to use the most effective technology to control pollution from gas wells.  This is really disappointing because these controls are urgently needed.  A recent study in Colorado showed that health risks increase the closer you get to the well and in many states these wells are located in people’s backyards and next to schoolyards.
  • EPA is leaving in place a loophole that allows existing facilities the ability to release thousands of pounds (up to 1 ton per year) of cancer causing benzene from one type of equipment (large glycol dehydrators) despite analysis showing that this could result in dangerous cancer risk for neighboring communities..
  • Under the new rules, existing facilities will not be required to upgrade their equipment to reduce emissions and protect public health.  This means that families already struggling with the air pollution caused by these facilities won’t get the relief they need.
  • Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to evaluate the health threats from industrial sources, like fracking facilities, and set standards to protect the most vulnerable populations.  But, with this National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) rule, EPA missed the opportunity to provide critical relief from toxic air pollutants that are linked to respiratory and neurological problems and cancer.
  • The NESHAP rule relied on a heavily flawed analysis of health risks which omitted dangerous pollutants, ignored major sources of pollution, and failed to protect the most vulnerable populations.  On the technology side, the rule failed to consider existing best practices already being deployed by many facilities to control pollution and prevent health impacts to surrounding communities.  These technologies such as, improved efficiency, leak prevention systems, and emission controls are currently available, feasible, and can even save the industry money.

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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