A new analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Policy Integrity finds that "trade secret" chemicals were injected into gas and oil wells nearly 11,000 times in Ohio during a five-year period.
Some first responders like Silverio Caggiano, fire battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department, are concerned that this is leaving the public at risk in emergencies. Caggiano has been a hazardous materials technician for more than 28 years and was an original member of the Ohio Hazardous Materials and Weapons of Mass Destruction Technical Advisory Committee.
He says his hazmat team usually gets a warm welcome from local industries that use potentially dangerous chemicals. Most want to coordinate emergency planning.
"When we get to a facility, we’re used to, ‘Here’s everything we got. You guys are the rock stars, help us out,’" Caggiano said.
Emergency planning ensures that if there’s an explosion or a fire, the hazmat team knows what chemicals are used at a facility, and how to respond. But according to Caggiano, oil and gas companies aren’t interested in sharing information about all their chemicals with the local hazmat team.
"Fracking is a whole different deal," he said. "We’ve made attempts many times to talk to these frack industries and they don’t want to work with you."
Fracking companies use chemicals for everything from limiting the growth of bacteria, to preventing corrosion of well casings. Ohio laws enacted in 2010 and 2012 require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use.
But, there’s a loophole: Oil and gas companies don’t have to identify chemicals they consider trade secrets."
Partnership for Policy Integrity analyzed state data and found that between 2013-2018, well owners injected undisclosed chemicals nearly 11,000 times at more than 1,400 wells in Ohio. The report was funded in part by the Park Foundation, which also funds The Allegheny Front.
Adam Schroeder, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, said in a recorded audio statement, "Owners are required to disclose product by supplier trade name, chemical name and maximum concentration. An owner may designate certain information as trade secret and withhold it from reporting."
According to Schroeder, while most fracking chemicals are disclosed in Ohio, 16% have been reported as trade secrets since 2012.
"The state can access information from well owners if there’s a spill or other emergency," he said. "Critical safety information is always available and any additional information can be requested and accessed if necessary."
But Caggiano calls this a "pseudo disclosure." That’s because in an emergency, Caggiano says he doesn’t have time to send an email to ODNR and wait for a response. His hazmat team needs to know immediately whether to use water to put out a fire, or something else.
Caggiano gives the example of a gas well fire in Monroe County in 2014. It took days for the state to provide chemical information.
"Three days later they finally got some information. Not three minutes, not three hours, three days," he said. If there is an incident in Mahoning, his county, "It’s useless to me."
Tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River as a result of that gas fire, including some that were considered trade secrets. More than 70,000 fish were killed.
Dusty Horwitt, who authored the Partnership for Policy Integrity analysis, says people in Ohio and other states need to know what chemicals are being used at oil and gas operations for the safety of their health and the environment.
In addition to emergencies like the Monroe County fire, Horwitt says there are many pathways where these chemicals can contaminate water supplies, the air and soil. He points to leaks and spills at well sites, as well as underground disposal wells, which inject billions of gallons of fracking wastewater from oil and gas wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
"If there are spills at those operations or if those wells leak underground there could be serious contamination," he said.
Horwitt said 29 states have started requiring public disclosure of fracking chemicals.
"Some people think that that means problem solved, and what this research shows is that ten years after these disclosure laws went into effect, a lot of the chemicals are still secret," he said.
In an email statement, Mike Chadsey, director of public relations for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, dismisses Horwitt’s report and writes, "Ohio is, and always has been, a full chemical disclosure state."
Horwitt’s report outlines changes to Ohio’s laws that he says would strike a better balance between keeping proprietary chemicals secret and protecting public safety.