by Elizabeth Grossman
When the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) found exposure levels of respirable silica at hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations that were 10, 25, and 100 times greater than federal recommended safety limits, NIOSH was confident enough about these findings to present them at a national Institute of Medicine forum and to publish them on its website. These findings also formed the basis of a hazard alert issued jointly by NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But as I reported previously on The Pump Handle, NIOSH declined to identify the exact locations of the fracking operations where these exposures were measured or the names of the companies that operate at or own these drilling sites. A NIOSH investigator said to do so would not be productive and later noted that guidelines for the agency’s research prevent it from revealing names of individuals and companies involved. The NIOSH investigator also said they weren’t told the names of the precise locations they were taken to by “industry partners’ and that they didn’t consider this information “particularly important.”
This information, however, is important to workers who were at these sites when NIOSH gathered its data, and to those at the thousands of other fracking operations around the country. According to JobService North Dakota, an online clearinghouse for oilfield jobs in that state, drilling and fracking a well takes about a month, if all goes well, at which point the work crew moves onto the next site. This means that it’s likely that the workers present at the sites where NIOSH sampled are now at other drilling sites, and knowing where those exceptionally high silica dust levels were measured would be important to their future health. This information is also important to workers’ families, whose lives would be turned upside down by a loved one’s work-related illness. Knowing where these high silica exposure levels were detected is also important if workers are to follow up on how the responsible regulatory agencies and employers are responding to this situation.
So I tried to see if these locations could be determined by other information available through public agencies. NIOSH says it sampled at eleven different operations located in Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas. NIOSH also gave the name of the shale formations where it sampled, but they extend across wide swaths of land that straddle state boundaries. With the exception of North Dakota, where, according to the Energy Information Agency, actively producing gas wells number in the hundreds, each of these states has thousands of permitted and active gas wells. So it’s not really possible to identify a specific well site by state and shale formation alone.
No clues in OSHA records
Because both OSHA has occupational health and safety regulatory jurisdiction at fracking sites and both NIOSH and OSHA have issued a hazard alert for silica dust in fracking operations I was curious to see what OSHA’s records might reveal in terms of silica exposure in the oil and gas industry in the states where NIOSH did its sampling. I was curious to see if this has been an ongoing problem or one that’s only recently been recognized. OSHA’s most recent chemical exposure health data records for Arkansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas is from sampling done between 2007 and 2009. OSHA said on July 20th that chemical health exposure data from 2010 and 2011 should be available on its website “in about a week.”
The OSHA inspection data includes hundreds of silica sampling records, but between the 2007-2009 I could only find records of silica sampling performed at two companies involved in natural gas or oil extraction or well servicing – one in Louisiana (cited for respiratory protection violations) and one in Texas, both in 2007. There are also numerous records of OSHA inspections of oil and gas extraction facilities in these states during this time, including many that document violations for which companies have been cited and fined. These include violations related to air contaminants and respiratory protection, safety and health requirements, and protective equipment. But it doesn’t appear from records currently available online that OSHA sampled for silica where NIOSH did its investigation of exposure at fracking sites. So it appears that as of now, there is no publicly available information that documents respirable silica exposure at any fracking operations identified by operator or owner name and location. To learn more, we will have to wait to see what OSHA’s 2010 and 2011 data may reveal – or for NIOSH to release additional information.
Back to NIOSH
The question begs to be asked: If respirable silica poses a serious enough hazard at fracking operations for NIOSH and OSHA to have issued a hazard alert, and the levels measured in NIOSH’s field investigations so exceed regulatory safety standards, why is the agency unwilling to release details of where these levels were measured? In an interview, a NIOSH investigor explained that these field investigations depend on the cooperation of NIOSH’s “industry partners.” But NIOSH’s mission is ultimately to improve workplace health and safety. The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act gives NIOSH the authority to make inspections, and while specific places of employment are not to be identified in investigation reports, this information must be disclosed if requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I filed such a FOIA request in early June, asking for the background information supporting NIOSH’s findings, and will report back when I receive a substantive response.
Under the OSH Act, explained Tufts University professor of public medicine and community health Anthony Robbins, who was Director of NIOSH during the Carter administration, there should be no expectation of confidentiality when it comes to the names and workplaces where NIOSH investigations are conducted. “The only confidentiality NIOSH observed was for ‘trade secrets’ and even that was up to NIOSH to decide what was a trade secret,” said Robbins in an interview. In fact, he said, it may even be against the law for a NIOSH investigator to offer confidentiality to any business being investigated.
There is clearly some delicate balancing involved in gaining access to sites for ongoing investigations and sampling. It also remains to be seen if and when NIOSH will disclose the location and operator/owner information regarding its fracking site silica exposure investigations. But it seems valid to ask how the agency’ mission is served and workers’ right-to-know about health hazards is honored by withholding the names of companies whose operations violate health and safety standards.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.