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Dallas doctor gets no answers on frack fluid ingredients

DALLAS TWP. — After his failed attempts to fight the state’s oil and gas law in court, Alfonso Rodriguez, M.D., is ready to sign a nondisclosure form to view a full list of ingredients in hydraulic fracturing fluid.

If only someone could tell him where to find it.

Since 2010, the kidney specialist has been trying to obtain information on the chemical mix used to frack a specific Chesapeake Energy Corp. well in Bradford County.

He said he believes it could be the source of serious problems affecting one of his patients, a Luzerne County man who was coated in flowback fluid during a well blowout about five years ago.

Flowback is mostly made up of hydraulic fracturing fluid but can include “produced water” that has sat inside the rock formation for millions of years.

Gas companies cannot control the composition of produced water, but they carefully control the chemical mix used in frack fluid to reduce scale buildup and friction, kill microbes and other functions. Exposure to flowback fluid is a known occupational hazard for gas industry workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has identified at least four deaths from acute exposure to flowback since 2010, though little reliable information is available on the frequency of exposure or long-term health effects.

In the years since the blowout, the patient has lost renal function and experienced an immune system collapse, Dr. Rodriguez said. Other industry workers have come to him since then. Many of them share similar symptoms, he said.

He described them as generally healthy, vigorous people who experienced a rapid decline in health over a short time. “These are hardworking folks that are proud to be working,” he said.

Early on, Dr. Rodriguez tried to identify the frack fluid chemicals through hospital officials — he would not say which hospital — who he said told him the gas companies would not provide this information.

Dr. Rodriguez and his wife Mary, a registered nurse, are members of Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, a Luzerne County group outspoken on what they see as risks the industry poses to local communities.

Believing he had an ethical obligation to find and share frack fluid ingredients, Dr. Rodriguez sued the state in 2012. A federal judge dismissed the suit in June, arguing Dr. Rodriguez lacked legal standing. Last week, an appellate court upheld the decision.

Related: Final federal fracking rules causing chaos in the industry

Still, a provision in the state’s Act 13 of 2012 should allow Dr. Rodriguez access to the full list of chemicals used in a specific well, including those deemed “trade secrets,” as long as he signs a form saying he will not disclose them.

Other states have passed similar nondisclosure laws. Pennsylvania’s is modeled after Colorado’s, though that state has a blank nondisclosure form available online.

Pennsylvania does not have a system in place to oversee this exchange of secret information, the Rodriguezes soon learned.

Last week, they called state health and environmental agencies, including the Department of Health, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of State, the State Board of Medicine and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. No one knew anything about a nondisclosure form, they said.

They even visited Chesapeake Energy’s Bradford County office last Friday. The company directed them to speak to one of its environmental managers who was away in Oklahoma, Chesapeake’s home state, for 11 days, Mrs. Rodriguez said. They also sent a written request, hoping the company will disclose it. Chesapeake declined to comment for this story.

Contacted this week about the nondisclosure form and whether the agency receives inquiries from doctors about it, a Department of Health spokesperson referred all questions on the subject to the DEP.

The DEP does not issue nondisclosure forms for this purpose, according a Friday statement from the DEP’s central office in Harrisburg. The DEP restated the requirements in Act 13 and invited doctors, gas companies and chemical manufacturers to inform the DEP if a party doesn’t follow the process.

Act 13 also mandated disclosure on a well-by-well basis to FracFocus.org, though it does not do Dr. Rodriguez’s patient much good. His exposure happened years before Act 13. The well in question does not show up on FracFocus.

A review of five nearby Chesapeake wells that are listed on FracFocus show all but one used between 4 million and 5 million gallons of 99-percent water and sand mix. Other chemicals varied widely. Only one well used ingredients claimed a “trade secret.”

The Rodriguezes find the lack of answers has been frustrating and ultimately harmful to their patients. Other health care workers’ efforts to unlock the frack fluid cookbook have also been unsuccessful.

Amelia Paré, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in McMurray, said she tried unsuccessfully to use the nondisclosure system after she began seeing patients living near gas sites who developed inflamed sores on their faces.

“I think this has been confounding for many of us,” she said.

Endless Mountains Health Systems, Commonwealth Health, and Geisinger Health System — whose emergency rooms might see patients in Northeast Pennsylvania for acute chemical injuries — did not know anything about a nondisclosure form.

Geisinger would treat a patient with a heavy exposure to an unknown mix of chemicals based on the symptoms they present, emergency manager Stephanie Gryboski said in an email.

She pointed to a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services tool doctors can use to work backward from a patient’s symptoms to identify a likely cause. The tool recommends equipment and procedures first responders should use.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society has not heard from physicians frustrated by the nondisclosure process spokesman Chuck Moran said. He asked staff members who handle physician inquiries and said they have not heard much about it.

“Occasionally, someone will call about fracking in general, but nothing anyone can recall about disclosure,” he said in an email. “It’s very possible that those with questions about nondisclosure are going directly to the state, though.”

One Bradford County doctor said he has successfully obtained trade secret information, but only under federal law.

Theodore Them, M.D., an occupational and public health specialist who often treats gas industry patients, said Act 13’s nondisclosure language almost exactly mimics Title III of the federal Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act, or SARA.

After a few attempts, Dr. Them’s requests to a chemical manufacturer were successful after he signed the manufacturer’s nondisclosure form. The information proved useful in treating his patient, he said.

One problem is that companies operating the wells often do not know all the ingredients used in their frack fluid, he said.

“Although Chesapeake or Statoil or Anadarko may be using these chemicals, they don’t manufacture them,” he said. “They’re dependent upon vendors.”

Under federal laws, manufacturers can avoid disclosing proprietary chemicals, hazardous components of less than 1 percent in a mixture and carcinogens of less than 0.1 percent in a mixture, he said.

“The user of the chemical could provide the (safety data sheet) to the doctor, but that would not necessarily be the whole truth or nothing but the truth,” he said.

In general, he thinks flowback fluid is not likely to pose a substantial risk to workers because the hazardous chemicals are highly diluted, and most are water-soluble, meaning they do not evaporate and expose workers to fumes. “There’s usually very little potential for direct exposure to raw, concentrated chemicals,” he said.

When and if he finds the formula, Dr. Rodriguez is not absolutely certain it will explain his patients’ problems. Cause-and-effect relationships are difficult to determine for many of the little-studied chemicals used in this industry, he said, especially regarding long-term, cumulative exposure.

Still, he and Mrs. Rodriguez say they believe they have an ethical obligation to find the answers for their patients and any others wondering if the industry harmed their health.

“That’s really why we have to find the procedure all these people can follow so they’ll be treated for what they’re exposed to,” Mrs. Rodriguez said.

 

This article was written by Brendan Gibbons from The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.