States Drag Their Feet on Congressman’s Frack Waste Investigation

Cartwright finds responses from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia too little and too late.

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An investigation led by Pennsylvania Congressman Matthew Cartwright (center) into several states' fracking waste practices has failed to provide any substantive details. Credit: Congressman Matt Cartwright

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A Pennsylvania congressman wanted to know how his state and two neighboring states oversee the disposal of the often toxic waste generated by fracking oil-and-gas wells.

Now, Matthew Cartwright has some answers, and he finds them late–and lacking.

Cartwright, a Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania, launched the investigation in his state last October. A month later, he expanded his inquiry to Ohio and West Virginia. 

Responses from two states failed to provide substantive, detailed information to the congressman while one state has ignored the request.

Among the issues Cartwright raised:

  • How each state inspects oil-and-gas waste facilities.

  • What information the states require to pinpoint what’s in the waste.

  • An explanation of the process for handling complaints regarding fracking waste disposal.

Answers to those questions are important for both residents and the environment in regions that are disposing of huge quantities of fracking waste, Cartwright said in an email interview.

“States continually argue that this is a state’s issue and they can best handle it,” Cartwright said. “We are simply asking states to please provide a little more insight into how they handle this issue and more importantly, how they enforce their own regulations.

“We believe that these states may not be adequately disposing of potentially hazardous waste.”

A representative of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to InsideClimate News calls and questions about why the agency has failed to reply to Cartwright. The agency was given a Dec. 3 deadline.

West Virginia officials recently assured Cartwright they are properly monitoring oil-and-gas waste. Pennsylvania administrators met the deadline but provided only broad answers.

In a two-page letter to Cartwright sent after InsideClimate News inquired about why a Dec. 3 deadline was missed, a West Virginia official told the congressman that the waste ends up in properly regulated facilities.

Randy C. Huffman, cabinet secretary for the state’s EPA, did not specifically address Cartwright’s questions or provide data sought by the congressman.

“West Virginia has several regulations in place to address proper disposal of the waste associated with oil and gas operations,” Huffman told Cartwright.

In the letter, Huffman briefly explained to Cartwright that drilling waste must be disposed of in landfill cells specifically constructed for oil-and-gas waste, and the agency has established limits on the amount of toxins allowed in the waste. 

Huffman also told Cartwright his agency is working with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources on a study of radiation levels of drilling waste. That information will be provided to the state legislature later in the year, Huffman said.

Huffman’s letter did not indicate the agency intends any further response to Cartwright.

A Deadline, a Dearth of Details

Pennsylvania officials met Cartwright’s Nov. 12 deadline with a five-page response that provided the state’s policy positions on many of his questions. The agency generally explained its reporting requirements for the following: oil-and-gas waste facilities; mandatory chemical analysis of waste; and state inspection standards for waste facilities. It also included an explanation of enforcement rules.

“Pennsylvania’s residual waste regulations provide a comprehensive approach for managing waste from the point of generation to transportation, processing, recycling and disposal,” said the letter signed by Dana Aunkst, the former acting secretary of Pennsylvania’s EPA. (He is now the agency’s executive deputy secretary for programs.)

Aunkst explained that it would take considerable time to provide specific answers to Cartwright’s questions, but pledged cooperation if more information was required.

The replies have prompted Cartwright, a member of the House Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs, to seek meetings with committee staff in the coming weeks to discuss ways to get the information, according to a Cartwright staff member.

As a minority member of the committee, Cartwright must rely on the voluntary cooperation of the state agencies. To compel disclosure through subpoenas would require the support of the Republican majority, assistance that seems unlikely.

Cartwright identified the three states as objects of his Congressional investigation because they generate waste from hydraulic fracturing––or fracking––as well as accepting waste from other states. Fracking is the process of blasting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand down a well to break open shale to extract fossil fuels.

Cartwright’s growing inquiry mirrors the increasing national concern about the disposal of oil-and-gas waste generated by fracking.

In letters to the heads of the three states’ environmental protection agencies, Cartwright said fracking waste can “cause harm to human health and the environment” if not properly handled.

Cartwright, who is beginning his second term, also wants to determine whether the three states are following the federal Clean Air Act, which mandates protection from airborne contaminants.

Cartwright cites a 2011 minority staff report of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It identified 29 chemicals found in fracking waste that are possible human carcinogens, and are regulated under both the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health.

The report identified benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene as being among the chemicals found in fracking products. Each of those compounds is a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act and a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen.

An investigation published last year by InsideClimate News found that in most states where fracking is taking place, air emissions from oil-and-gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction-and-production cycle.

No Mandate, No Monitoring

The representative also wants answers to more than a dozen other questions related to the way the states ensure health and environmental safety.

“The Subcommittee minority is conducting this oversight to determine if state regulations and monitoring of fracking waste are sufficient to ensure accuracy, completeness and compliance with applicable environmental laws,” Cartwright said in the letters.

But the request has not elicited the answers Cartwright sought.

David Brown, a toxicologist at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said he suspects one of the reasons for the snub is that the state agencies simply don’t have the information.

“You hope someone is paying attention to things like this,” he said, “but that’s not always the case.”

Brown suggests one of the reasons for some of the states’ indifference is an absence of federal requirements for tracking and regulating the waste.

Consequently, he said, states don’t closely regulate oil-and-gas waste because such oversight is not mandated. And in many cases, even if they wanted to undertake the job, they don’t have adequate resources, he said.

Not regulating the waste is a huge failing, Brown said.

“It’s important to know what’s in this material because some it can be highly toxic,” Brown said. “If these toxic substances get into the ground water or into the air, they can be very dangerous.”

Some of the compounds in oil-and-gas waste have been linked to cancer, or contribute to respiratory and neurological illnesses.

It’s dangerous to remain uninformed of the exact makeup and concentrations of chemicals in oil-and-gas waste, Brown said. He cites leaded gasoline as an example.

It took decades for the threat to human health posed by the toxicity of leaded fuel became known, he said.

“The implication of exposing the population to chemicals that you don’t know much about is a dangerous thing,” Brown said. “From a public health perspective, they ought to know what’s going on.”

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