A non-profit research group has found the oil and gas industry in Ohio has used PFAS, known as “forever” chemicals, in at least 101 oil and gas wells since 2013. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) released a report on Thursday and said that the state’s disclosure rules prevent the public from knowing how widely PFAS have been used.
PFAS are a class of thousands of man-made chemicals used in everything from food packaging to firefighting foam. “And there’s evidence that it has been used widely in the oil and gas industry for decades,” said Dusty Horwitt, who co-authored a report for Physicians for Social Responsibility.
PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily in the environment. They have been linked to some cancers, reduced fertility, and developmental effects in children.
The group analyzed a database where the oil and gas industry self-reports chemical usage, and found PFAS was used in wells in eight Ohio counties: 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.
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According to Horwitt, PFAS are difficult to track because Ohio rules allow companies to claim ‘trade secrets’ to avoid disclosure of chemicals they use. “Between 2013 and 2022, oil and gas companies withheld 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 found PFAS chemicals were used in eight wells in Pennsylvania, although Pa. has similar “trade secrets” rules.
PFAS chemicals are known to move quickly in water. For Horwitt, that adds a concern because PFAS contamination of drinking water from fracking hasn’t been adequately researched. “We’re aware only of one study so far that has looked for these chemicals in drinking water near oil and gas operations,” Horwitt said.
That sampling found PFAS in a drinking well fed by groundwater near oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania. Horwitt wants more research but also thinks Ohio and other states should follow Colorado’s lead and ban the use of PFAS in oil and gas operations.
“That’s a very wise thing to do because of the extreme toxicity and persistence of these chemicals and the multiple routes of exposure that could exist from oil and gas operations,” Horwitt said.
Ohio accepts frack 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 “frack” a well. The process brings up millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater.
In Ohio, much of the wastewater is pumped into underground injection disposal wells. The state has 245 frack waste injection wells, according to an analysis by FrackTracker Alliance, referenced in the PSR report, which accepted a total of 12.7 billion gallons of waste in 2020 from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“There could be PFAS in the wastewater that comes up from these wells, whether in Ohio or from neighboring states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia and then is 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 towns: Atwater, Barnesville, Cambridge, Coolville, Coshocton, Dennison, Dexter City, Fowler, Garrettsville, Hartville, Hiram, Kent, Marietta, Nashport, Newton, Norwich, Rootstown, and Stockport.
How states and US EPA are reacting to the emerging knowledge on PFAS contamination
According to Horwitt, eight states have set maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water. In 2020, Michigan set an MCL for PFOA, “the most infamous type of PFAS,” he said, at eight parts per trillion. “So that’s a very, very low level of contamination.”
In June, the US EPA went further and issued interim advisory MCLs for PFOA at 0.004 parts per trillion, down from the previous MCL of 70 parts per trillion set by EPA in 2016.
“At that 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 set federal drinking water regulations for some PFAS chemicals by 2023.
“When the MCL standards are set, these will be adopted by Ohio and other states,” said James Lee, spokesperson for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2020, Ohio EPA tested more than 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 the previous HALs (Health Advisory Level), and both have addressed the issues through connecting to nearby public drinking water sources,” Lee said. The previous HAL was 70 parts per trillion, compared with the current 0.004 parts per trillion considered safe by US EPA.
10/3/22 Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that PFAS had been used “thousands of times” in oil and gas wells in Ohio since 2013. It has been corrected to 101 times since 2013 per page 8 of the PSR report. The report found that at least one “undisclosed chemical” was used in 2,164 Ohio oil and gas wells since 2013.