The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health today issued a ‘hazard alert’ to employers conducting hydraulic fracking operations. OSHA wants steps to protect workers from silica exposure in the controversial technique used to extract oil and natural gas.
The hazard alert follows a study by NIOSH and industry that identified overexposure to silica as a health hazard to workers during hydraulic fracking. No data on the effect of the residents of these areas were released.
Because large quantities of silica sand are used during hydraulic fracturing, NIOSH started collecting data only in January of 2010 on silica exposure at hydraulic fracturing operations. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s appears to be lethargic – to be kind – in looking at fracking.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just released draft regulations covering the use of diesel fuels injected underground during hydraulic fracking to get natural gas and oil. EPA said it was attempting to clarify how companies can comply with a law passed by Congress in 2005 regulating diesel fuel if it is used as a fracking fluid. (See EPA Regulates Diesel Fuel Injected Underground for Fracking)
The law is controversial because in pay-to-play Washington dominated by big money, Congress exempted most fracking fluids from the regulation of liquids injected into the ground required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In environmental circles, this became known as the Halliburton loophole. Then U.S. vice-president Richard Cheney ran Halliburton – the biggest fracking services company in the country if not the world – before he was elected, of course.
NIOSH said in a statement today that it worked in cooperation with oil and gas industry “partners” to sample the air at 11 sites in five states where hydraulic fracturing operations were taking place. NIOSH identified seven primary sources of silica dust exposure during fracking operations and found that workers downwind of sand mover and blender operations, especially during hot loading, had the highest silica exposures.
It is known that workers who breathe silica day after day are at greater risk of developing silicosis, a disease in which lung tissue reacts to trapped silica particles, causing inflammation and scarring, and reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Silica also can cause lung cancer and has been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney and autoimmune disease.
Today’s alert states that employers must ensure that workers are properly protected from overexposure to silica. According to the alert, transporting, moving and refilling silica sand into and through sand movers, and along transfer belts and into blender hoppers, can release dust into the air containing up to 99 % silica that workers breathe.
States regulate fracking, and the rules vary widely. According to a Congressional Research Service report dated 10 April 2012, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Safe Drinking Water Act Issues,” numerous states are reviewing or have revised their oil and gas rules to address the increased use of fracking. Right now, EPA is performing a long-term study on fracking and how it may impact drinking water, but it will never be released before the 2012 election, I’m betting.
There are fracking bills pending in a Congress awash with special interest money. House of Representatives bill H.R. 1084 and Senate bill S.587 would allow the EPA to regulate fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but it faces fierce opposition from the industry. Senate bill S.2248 and House of Representatives bill H.R. 4322 would make states the only authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal lands within state boundaries.