April 13, 2023

Organization calls for greater scrutiny of oil and gas operations amid PFAS concerns

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

A pumpjack is pictured near Aztec, NM.

A new report released by Physicians for Social Responsibility claims that PFAS chemicals, or Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances, are used in oil and gas operations in New Mexico and this use has the potential to contaminate soil, air and water resources in the state.

The newly released report builds upon information PSR released in 2021 regarding the use of PFAS in oil and gas production in the state.

PSR relied on information from FracFocus, an independent database where companies voluntarily report the chemicals that they are using in oil and gas production.

According to the report, PFAS has been used in the oil and gas industry in New Mexico since 2013, but the extent of the PFAS use is unknown because the companies do not have to disclose all of the chemicals they use in extraction of oil and gas. 

“These findings raise concerns that New Mexicans may unknowingly be exposed to highly hazardous substances that are toxic in minuscule amounts,” the report states.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been linked to reproductive effects such as decreased fertility in women, developmental effects and delays in children, increased risk of certain cancers, reduced ability to fight infections, increased obesity, increased cholesterol and interference with the body’s natural hormones.

Dusty Horwitt is the lead author of the report. He joined PSR in 2020 as a consultant to look into chemicals used in oil and gas production.

When asked by NM Political Report, Horwitt acknowledged that there is no evidence that PFAS used in the oil and gas industry has contaminated air, water or soil resources in New Mexico. But  that is because there hasn’t been a lot of scrutiny to determine whether or not it is occurring, he said.

PFAS chemicals include thousands of types of manufactured chemicals that are common in fire suppression foam, household goods such as cookware and space heaters, water-resistant fabrics such as rain jackets and personal care products such as shampoos.

These chemicals are sometimes called forever chemicals because they take a long time to deteriorate in the environment.

The use of PFAS chemicals has been so widespread that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the chemicals can be found in the blood of people and animals around the world.

Major sources of PFAS contamination in the environment include fire training operations, industrial sites, landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

The known PFAS contamination in New Mexico has come from fire suppression exercises at military bases.

The New Mexico Environment Department began work in 2020 in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey to identify PFAS chemicals in water. In January 2021, the department released information stating that the testing had not found any imminent public health threats. The tests had not shown levels above the EPA’s lifetime health advisory for PFAS.

PSR’s report states that the health advisory is now outdated.

“Under EPA’s June 2022 interim health advisory levels for PFOA and  PFOS, multiple samples of water in New Mexico’s sampling for PFAS have levels that are now judged unsafe,” the PSR report states.

These include the Melrose water system in Curry County that tested at 2.9 parts per trillion for a type of PFAS called PFOS, the Alamogordo Domestic Water System/Golf Course Well in Otero County that tested at eight parts per trillion and spring 10 of the Cloudcroft Water System in Otero County, which tested at 36 parts per trillion of a PFAS chemical known as PFOA, the report highlights.

None of those tests have been directly linked to PFAS use in oil and gas operations to date.

The PSR study identified two PFAS chemicals that have documented use in oil and gas in New Mexico—Teflon and fluoroalkyl alcohol substituted polyethylene glycol.

According to the report, Teflon has been used in more than 200 oil and gas wells in six counties in New Mexico, including in both the San Juan and Permian basins.

It also alleges that some of the chemicals whose composition are not publicly available and are labeled by the oil and gas industry as a trade secret could be PFAS chemicals. The majority of the use of PFAS chemicals that PSR documented was in the form of these trade-secret chemicals that PSR believes could be PFAS chemicals.

More than 90 percent of oil and gas wells in New Mexico have had trade-secret chemicals injected into them, according to the PSR report.

Horwitt said the contamination of the environment could occur through injection of PFAS chemicals through disposal of produced water or in extraction of oil and gas, flaring off of natural gas or spills.

Mario Atencio, a Navajo Nation resident and environmental activist, said that the drinking water wells in the eastern Navajo chapters tend to be deep water wells that are barely above the Mancos shale where a lot of the extraction is occurring.

In addition to migrating from the extraction region into drinking water, Atencio said spills permeate the geological layers quickly on the Navajo Nation.

Atencio pointed to one well that PSR identified as having had Teflon injected into it. He said that well is located in an important groundwater area that provides drinking water for Navajo Nation communities.

Kayley Shoup, a community organizer in the Permian Basin, highlighted the cave systems and permeability of the Permian Basin geology when talking about how PFAS could get into groundwater near Carlsbad.

“That means some of the aquifers are karst groundwater aquifers and they are prone to rapid recharge from surface runoff,” she said.

In the report, PSR called for banning the use of PFAS chemicals in oil and gas extraction; expanding public disclosure of chemicals used in oil and gas operations; increasing testing and tracking of PFAS in water, soil and organisms; requiring companies to fund environmental testing for PFAS and cleanup PFAS contamination; remove the state’s hazardous waste exemption for oil and gas; reform state regulations for production and injection wells; and transition to renewable energy.