A report indicating that PFAS chemicals have been used in hydraulic fracturing operations in New Mexico “emphasizes how important it is for regulators to know what is in the industrial wastewater,” Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department told NM Political Report in an email.
Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report this week that found PFAS chemicals, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or chemicals that could break down into PFAS have been used in fracking operations in 1,200 wells in half a dozen states, including New Mexico.
PFAS chemicals have a broad range of applications and can be found in household objects including non-stick cookware. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential health impacts of these “forever chemicals,” which do not break down under normal environmental conditions.
“Ongoing research into uses of PFAS and the prevalence of these persistent chemicals in the environment is essential to support strong regulatory responses at the federal and state levels,” Hayden said.
New Mexico has petitioned the EPA to list PFAS as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Related: Governor petitions EPA to list PFAS as hazardous waste
“We need a comprehensive regulatory umbrella to ensure that the creation, use, and ultimate disposal of PFAS is done in a safe and controlled manner with clear authority for the state to hold polluters accountable,” Hayden said.
PFAS has contaminated groundwater near Clovis and Alamogordo in connection to activities at Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases. These two bases were used in a fire suppressant foam containing PFAS in training exercises.
New Mexico has since sued the U.S. Department of Defense for the contamination and the litigation is ongoing.
New Mexico is currently limited in what it can do to regulate the use of PFAS in oil and gas operations. For example, Hayden said NMED doesn’t have the authority to regulate chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
While the environment department does not have the authority to regulate what chemicals are used in fracking, companies are required to report what fluids are used, according to Robert McEntyre, a spokesperson for New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. In an email to NM Political Report, McEntyre said NMOGA pushed for rules requiring fracking fluid disclosure in 2011 that were ultimately adopted by the state’s Oil Conservation Commission.
Outside of the oil and gas industry, NMED can regulate discharges to groundwater for three types of PFAS chemicals: PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS, Hayden said.
What the report found
Physicians for Social Responsibility started with a Freedom of Information Act request looking at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s discussions about three chemicals that could break down into a type of PFAS known as PFOA. Despite concerns about health impacts, the regulators approved the use of those chemicals in fracking.
Physicians for Social Responsibility further looked at the FracFocus database to gauge the use of those chemicals. While the group did not find records of the three chemicals being used in fracking — which is something that McEntyre noted in his email — it did find chemicals with related names that had been injected into more than 1,200 wells in six states including New Mexico. After discussing these chemicals with experts, Physicians for Social Responsibility determined that they are either PFAS or can break down into PFAS.
Those chemicals included fluorinated benzoic salts, fluoroalkyl alcohol substituted polyethylene glycol, fluorosurfactants, meta-perfluoromethylcyclohexane and nonionic fluorosurfactant, which was the most commonly listed.
Physicians for Social Responsibility found evidence of two companies with wells in New Mexico using nonionic fluorosurfactant, but McEntyre argued that Physicians for Social Responsibility did not provide any evidence that his chemical was misused by oil and gas operations. A third company used fluoroalkyl alcohol substituted polyethylene glycol in wells in New Mexico.
“The evidence that people could be unknowingly exposed to these extremely toxic chemicals through oil and gas operations is disturbing,” said Dusty Horwitt, the report’s author, in a press release. “Considering the terrible history of pollution associated with PFAS, EPA and state governments need to move quickly to ensure that the public knows where these chemicals have been used and is protected from their impacts.”
NMOGA: Fracking has not contaminated NM groundwater
McEntyre called the Physicians for Social Responsibility report “another activist tactic light on science and heavy on feigned hysteria.”
McEntyre said oil and gas companies have been fracking in New Mexico for decades and hydraulic fracturing has been used thousands of times in the state without a single documented case of groundwater contamination.
While industry groups like NMOGA often say there are not documented cases of groundwater contamination from fracking in New Mexico, there have been cases documented in other states such as Wyoming.
“Oil and natural gas producers are committed to safe, science-based practices to ensure the protection of the environment and the integrity of wells and other production facilities,” McEntyre said. “Every well that is constructed in New Mexico that uses the fracking method is required to have multiple layers of steel and cement and is drilled thousands of feet beneath the surface to protect from leakage or contamination. Wells are also pressure tested before production begins to ensure every well is secure, and continuous around-the-clock monitoring notifies qualified maintenance and operations personnel so that any potential issues can be quickly addressed.”
Congresswoman: EPA must take action
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must immediately consider the findings of the Physicians for Social Responsibility report and “take action to ensure the health of our communities.”
“New Mexico communities know firsthand how devastating PFAS contamination can be,” Fernández, a Democrat, said in a statement to NM Political Report. “PFAS contamination in New Mexico has already ruined farms, dairies and threatened our water supply across my district. It puts lives, livelihoods, and this beautiful place we call home at risk.”
Just days before the Physicians for Social Responsibility report was released, she hosted a press conference with a Clovis-area dairy farmer about how PFAS contamination from Cannon Air Force Base destroyed his farm.
Related: USDA may buy cows from dairy farm contaminated with PFAS
The Physicians for Social Responsibility report states that PFAS used in fracking could place groundwater at risk. These chemicals could enter the groundwater through various methods including spills, inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater, underground migration, and cracks in casing or cement, according to the report.
“The American people have a right to know what chemicals are used in oil and gas production,” Fernández said.
PFAS could be in produced water
One way that PFAS could potentially get into the groundwater is through produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction that can contain chemicals used in fracking.
While NMOGA states that there is no evidence fracking has contaminated New Mexico’s groundwater, there are hundreds of documented produced water spills each year in the state.
Related: ‘Dereliction of duty’: 1.6 million gallons of produced water spilled so far in 2020
In light of aridification in the western United States and ongoing drought, some New Mexico lawmakers have hoped produced water could be a way to address water shortages. The produced water, they say, could be treated and put to beneficial use.
This led to the passage of the New Mexico Produced Water Act of 2019.
“The New Mexico Produced Water Act of 2019 provided the New Mexico Environment Department with regulatory authority for all uses of produced water outside of the oil and gas industry,” Hayden said.
Related: More questions than answers on how to reuse produced water
NMED is not currently issuing permits for discharges of produced water, she said.
Within the oil and gas industry, the use of produced water is regulated by the Oil Conservation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
Both NMED and the OCD have partnered with the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium to gather additional data about produced water.
“Before drafting any rules to allow for regulated use of treated produced water outside of the oil and gas sector, we are investing in sound science to fill gaps in our understanding of what is in produced water and how it can be treated to remove harmful pollutants,” Hayden said. “Ultimately, we aim to determine what, if any, end uses could take advantage of this water source without harm to human health and the environment and be a tool in mitigating the impacts of climate change, especially drought.”
Related: Ranchers, researchers mull using treated produced water for irrigation
NMED also intends to file a petition with the state’s Water Quality Control Commission to amend the ground and surface water regulations under the Water Quality Act to “prohibit all discharges of untreated produced water outside the oil and gas industry,” she said.