Oil & Gas Exploration: Is ‘Fracking’ Safe?

Cathy Behr says she won't forget the smell that nearly killed her. An emergency-room nurse in Durango, Colo.'s Mercy Regional Medical Center, Behr was working the April 17 day shift when Clinton Marshall arrived complaining of nausea and headaches. An employee at an energy-services company, Weatherford International, Marshall, according to Behr, said that he was caught in a "fracturing-fluid" spill. [Fracturing chemicals are routinely used on oil and gas wells where they are pumped deep into the ground to crack rock seams and increase production.] The chemical stench coming off Marshall's boots was buckling, says Behr. Mercy officials took no chances. They evacuated and locked down the ER, and its staff was instructed to don protective masks and gowns. But by the time those precautions were enacted, Behr had been nursing Marshall for 10 minutes--unprotected. "I honestly thought the response was a little overkill, but good practice," says Behr, 54, a 20-year veteran at Mercy.

A few days later, Behr's skin turned yellow. She began vomiting and retaining fluid. Her husband rushed her to Mercy where Behr was admitted to the ICU with a swollen liver, erratic blood counts and lungs filling with fluid. "I couldn't breath," she recalls. "I was drowning from the inside out." The diagnosis: chemical poisoning. The makers of the suspected chemical, Weatherford, tell NEWSWEEK that they aren't sure if their brand of fracking fluid can be blamed for her illness.

Throughout the Rocky Mountain states, Behr's run-in with fracturing fluid is getting a lot of attention and exacerbating already frayed nerves. After nearly eight years of some of the most intense oil and gas development ever recorded in the American West, concerns over the environmental and health impacts are bubbling over. On Tuesday, Colorado's top oil and gas regulatory authority—the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)—endorsed a sweeping set of rules that environmentalists call long overdue; industry warns of dire economic impacts.

And the stakes are getting higher. Last week, against public protests by much of the state's congressional leadership and governor, the federal Bureau of Land Management sold off drilling leases in a wilderness area called one of the region's most pristine ecosystems and which is home to enough natural gas to power Colorado for 34 years. "It's just huge," says Gwen Lachelt, executive director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), a nonprofit regional watchdog group, of the recent oil and gas plays in the state. "All eyes are on Colorado right now."

These have been boom years for the West. From New Mexico to Montana, more than 33,000 new oil and gas wells have been approved since 2001. Last year, nearly 90 percent of onshore federal drilling permits were issued in the Rockies. In the heart of the rush is Colorado. A 2007 survey from the Fraser Institute, an energy think tank, put the state as the No. 1 global spot to explore and develop oil and gas.

Central to that development is the use of fracking fluids. Largely unregulated, they've been employed by the energy industry for decades and, with the exception of diesel, can be made up of nearly any set of chemicals. Also, propriety trade laws don't require energy companies to disclose their ingredients. "It is much like asking Coca-Cola to disclose the formula of Coke," says Ron Heyden, a Halliburton executive, in recent testimony before the COGCC. Despite its widespread use and somewhat mysterious mix, fracturing fluid was deemed in 2004 by the Environmental Protection Agency as safe for the environment and groundwater. Dave Dillon, the COGCC's top engineering manager, says nearly every one of Colorado's 35,600 wells are "fracked" and that a minimum of 100,000 gallons are used per well, resulting in millions of gallons pumped into the ground each year. And since it's typically pumped far below groundwater tables, Congress exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.

The chemical that was allegedly on Marshall when he arrived at the Mercy Regional Medical Center, was ZetaFlow, a chemical made by Weatherford. In a copy of its Material Safety Data Sheet—which details ingredients, health warnings, fire hazards and more—ZetaFlow contains methanol and two undisclosed "proprietary" compounds. The document also warned that ZetaFlow can be an "immediate" and "chronic" health hazard. Prolonged exposure can cause kidney and liver damage, irritate lung tissue, decrease blood pressure, and result in dizziness and vomiting—all symptoms Behr experienced according to her medical records. Her physician wrote that her symptoms were "entirely consistent with exposure [to ZetaFlow] from all the information we were able to gather." As for ZetaFlow's impact on the environment, according to its data sheet, "no product information is available."

Marshall, a 31-year-old Aztec, N.M., resident, spoke with the Durango Herald last month and says he doubts that ZetaFlow sickened Behr. "I'm not saying that nothing did happen to her," he told the newspaper. "I'm just saying ... I didn't have any of it on me. I did not take any chemical into that hospital." The Durango Fire and Rescue Authority did however confirm that they were called to aerate the ER. NEWSWEEK was unable to reach Marshall for comment.

Weatherford spokesperson Christine McGee says the company has had no issues with ZetaFlow in its three years of use. "It's very unfortunate [Cathy Behr] was ill," McGee says. "But I think at this point I can't make a statement about the link to her being ill. I don't think anybody is sure right now."

What is clear is that 130 gallons of concentrated Zetaflow was released, says BP, which operates the well where the spill occurred. The international oil and gas giant has used Zetaflow at other drill sites, but NEWSWEEK has learned that the company is suspending its use. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo says it's trying "better understand this product." He added: "We leave it to [Weatherford] to adhere to the regulatory standards." Also, this month La Plata County commissioners, home to Durango, are considering a new regulation that would require oil and gas companies to reveal fracking fluid chemicals to emergency-room workers if someone is exposed. "It's a public-health issue for us. We don't know what the chemicals are and what can happen," says Wally White, county commissioner for La Plata County. A similar rule requiring companies to keep an inventory of chemicals at well sites was endorsed by the COGCC this week. A final vote is expected in September.

How often workers and communities are exposed to fracturing fluids, and the chemicals in them, is unknown. One study by Lachelt's OGAP reported Colorado had about 1,500 reported spills of various types, including fracturing fluids, in five years. Nearly 800 spills were identified in New Mexico. But, as the Behr case demonstrates, some fracturing fluid spills and worker contamination may be falling through regulatory cracks. While numerous government guidelines require contaminate spills and worker injuries be reported, NEWSWEEK has learned that not a single incident report was filed with any government agency by Weatherford or BP documenting the April 17 spill, nor may either company have been required to do so. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state's COGCC all tell NEWSWEEK that the incident falls outside their regulatory jurisdiction, or was not significant enough to trigger reporting requirements. Moreover, Marshall was contaminated on a well site located on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, putting federal, state and local oversight further out of reach. (The Southern Ute authorities say they were never notified of the spill either.) The Colorado offices of the EPA and OSHA did launch investigations this month.

For state health officials, the chemical exemptions, regulatory loopholes and missing data are a concerning mix. "We are just working in the dark," says Dr. Martha Rudolph, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "We don't know the impact on the potential health on humans might be. We need to." La Plata Commissioner White is more succinct: "I think this is a travesty," he says. "Somebody has dropped the ball."

Meanwhile, Behr returned to work at Mercy Hospital only last month. State and federal regulators, hospital officials and Behr have yet to learn what chemicals made her so ill. She says she worries about the long-term effects of her exposure, but harbors no ill-feelings toward the industry, noting the jobs and economic benefit it has brought to her area. "I always thought that the industry probably took chances," she says. "But I always thought someone was watching them. I really did think that."

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