Will produce from California be contaminated with toxic chemicals from fracking fluid? Action Alert!
In the face of a four-year-long drought, some farmers in California are turning to unconventional sources for the water they need to irrigate their crops: oil-drilling companies. The Los Angeles Times reports that Chevron, one of the largest oil companies in the world, recycles 21 million gallons of treated fracking fluid—water containing a cocktail of chemicals—and sells it to farmers to use on their crops. This program has been around for about two decades, and is heralded by some California lawmakers as a “water conservation” model to be replicated in other states facing water shortages.
Let’s hope not.
As you probably know, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a method of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand, and hundreds of different chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.
We’ve covered the topic in the past, particularly how fracking can contaminate drinking water and damage the environment. You may remember the Gasland documentary in which a resident near a fracking site was able to light his tap water on fire. It’s no wonder that this happens: in each frack, 80 to 300 tons of chemicals are pumped into the ground and then back out.
The obvious problem with recycling fracking fluid for irrigation is the potential for the chemicals to contaminate crops. Even after the fracking fluid has been treated following state guidelines, it has been found to contain oil, acetone (used as a laboratory solvent and a paint thinner), and methylene chloride (another powerful solvent that is classified as a potential carcinogen).
These are just the chemicals that have been found. The larger problem is that we simply don’t know what chemicals are used in fracking liquid, as companies often avoid disclosing the chemicals they use by claiming their particular recipe is a proprietary “trade secret.” So if we don’t know which chemicals to test for, any number of the hundreds of chemicals used in fracking could be present in this water—especially since many chemicals can’t be removed unless reverse osmosis filtration is used.
On the upside, California recently passed a law that requires oil companies to disclose the chemicals they use—but only to state regulators, not to consumers. This is unfortunately the norm in states across the country. Pennsylvania, for instance, allows only doctors to see the full list of ingredients used by oil and gas companies so they can treat patients made sick by the chemicals—and only after signing a non-disclosure form preventing them from sharing the information with their patients. That’s right—if you are poisoned, you won’t be able to find out what has poisoned you! Is this really happening in America?
Even buying organic may not fully protect you. A product could, so far as we know, carry the USDA’s “organic” label and still be grown using recycled fracking fluid. The National Organic Program’s regulations do not seem to include any directly stated requirements regarding the water being used on the crops.
Why would anyone dream up such a terrible idea as reusing fracking water on crops, and why? The answer, as usual, is money. The LA Times writes,
The program is a good deal for oil companies, which view the [fracking] water as an expensive nuisance. And it’s a bargain for the water districts. [The] cooperative pays Chevron about $30 an acre-foot for the wastewater, about half of open-market rates.
You read that right. Farmers don’t even get this “expensive nuisance” wastewater for free—they have to buy it, at half the price of non-contaminated water!
California Assemblyman Mike Gatto has introduced legislation that would require a label for foods grown with recycled fracking fluid. The proposed label would read, “Produced using recycled or treated oil-field wastewater.”
We won’t hold our breath waiting for this bill to pass. But even if it does pass, such a labeling law would only affect products sold in-state. But California grows an astounding percentage of America’s total produce: 99% of artichokes, 99% of walnuts, 97% of kiwis, 97% of plums, 95% of celery, 95% of garlic, 90% of broccoli, 89% of cauliflower, 71% of spinach, and 69% of carrots. Put another way, California produces nearly half of all US-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
This raises the question: how will those of us outside of California know if the produce we’re buying—even if it’s labeled “organic”—was grown with water laced with or at least somewhat contaminated with industrial-strength solvents? As with GMOs, consumers have a right to basic information about their food and the right to make informed decisions about what to put into their bodies—but currently we have no way of knowing if our produce from California was grown with this toxic water.
Action Alert! Write to your state representatives and urge them to ban the use of fracking water on crops. Please send your message immediately.
Additional Action Alert for California Residents! Write to your state legislators and urge them to support Assemblyman Gatto’s legislation. Please send your message immediately.