Frac sand exposure study FOIA: 13 months and still no response from CDC

Field studies conducted at hydraulic fracturing well sites by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2010 and 2011 found exposures to respirable crystalline silica well in excess of safety limits set by both NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The NIOSH  findings, released in April and May 2012, found 79% of air monitoring samples taken in personal breathing zones for silica exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure level (REL) and 47% were greater than OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL). Nine percent of the samples showed respirable silica exposures 10 or more times the OSHA limit, with one sample 25 times the PEL.  Thirty-one percent of all the air monitoring samples showed silica exposures 10 or more times NIOSH’s  REL, with one sample exceeding it by more than 100 times.These findings, from eleven different fracking sites in five states, prompted NIOSH and OSHA to issue a “Hazard Alert” in June 2012 for worker exposure to silica. The question now is what progress may have been made since then in improving conditions to better protect workers from this potentially serious health hazard.

Silica exposure has become a concern in fracking operations as large quantities of industrial sand – which is crystalline quartz (a.k.a. silica) – are used as proppants in hydraulic fracturing to help expand fissures through which shale gas is extracted. Industrial sand is also used in cementing at well sites. According to Well Servicing magazine, a single frac job can use anywhere from several tons to two million pounds of this sand.  It is delivered to drilling sites in truck loads that typically consist of about 50,000 pounds to 25 tons. Fine silica dust can be generated at numerous stages  at these operations as the industrial sand is transferred between equipment. Exposure to respirable silica dust, too fine to see, can lead to the incurable lung disease silicosis, chronic obstructive respiratory disease, lung cancer, scleroderma, bronchitis, renal disease and respiratory failure. The part of fracking operations during which sand is used generally lasts between several days to not more than a couple of months at the most, industry experts explain. But the crews conducting this work move from site to site and their exposure to silica dust accumulates. Respirable dust exposure is also a concern for workers involved in mining and processing this sand – also a booming industry.

Given the concerns raised by silica exposures, the NIOSH findings prompted questions about worker exposure – including exactly where oil field services workers are being exposed to excessive silica levels and which companies’ operations are creating these conditions. Answers to these questions are key to pinpointing where solutions have been implemented and where problems may persist.

When asked in June 2012,  NIOSH declined to say at which companies’ drilling sites their air sampling had been conducted and declined to share location details about these sites beyond their state and shale formation.  Not able to find this information independently, The Pump Handle filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on June 6, 2012. Thirteen months later, this request is still “pending final review.” Meanwhile, sources have suggested to The Pump Handle that disclosing these details of NIOSH’s silica exposure sampling would make companies reluctant to work with them.

Asked on July 8, 2013 what new information about its work on this program NIOSH could share, The Pump Handle was told that the only publicly available information is on the NIOSH website. Asked earlier this year about any additional follow up field studies done since the 2010 and 2011 sampling, NIOSH said that “no new site studies on silica dust” had been conducted.  NIOSH added that no additional companies had volunteered to host or participate in such studies. Anything further, NIOSH said on July 8, would be provided in response to my FOIA request. The FOIA request is now 13 months old and NIOSH has offered no indication when a response may be forthcoming.

NIOSH Oil and Gas Industry Partners

So I set about seeing what might be learned from the companies listed as NIOSH partners in its “Oil and Gas Extraction Industry Safety and Health Program”: Bandera Drilling Inc., Baker Hughes, Devon Energy, EnCana Oil & Gas, Halliburton, Helmerich & Payne Inc., Hess Corporation and Schlumberger.

Bandera Drilling, Devon Energy, and Helmerich & Payne, it turns out, do not themselves perform the kind of drilling site work in which their employees would handle the industrial sand used as proppants in fracking operations. Responding to my question about its participation in the NIOSH program, Devon Energy spokesperson Chip Minty also said it “wouldn’t have any comment regardless on NIOSH initiatives” because it is company policy to let government agencies (e.g. NIOSH) “take the lead in addressing their projects publicly.”

EnCana Oil & Gas Community & Public Relations director Doug Hock explained that his company has done its own silica exposure sampling and undertaken various measures to modify equipment to reduce silica exposure. “The measures we’ve put in place have minimized this impact to the extent we can,” he said. He also noted that one formation where EnCana is working in Colorado allows the company to work without sand proppants – something that may be unique to that geology.

Halliburton wrote via a spokesperson that it “is committed to protecting the safety and health of its employees. With respect to crystalline silica, Halliburton has processes and procedures in place to protect the health and safety of our employees and to monitor our compliance with current silica regulations. The Company is committed to be an industry leader in this area and to continue to pursue and implement the most innovative and effective means of protecting our employees at our worksites.” Baker Hughes similarly cited its commitment to employee health and safety, noting that the company is continually improving its practices. “Baker Hughes is diligent in enforcing sound work practices and administrative controls to protect personnel during hydraulic fracturing operations. We are actively working with manufacturers and vendors to explore engineering controls to continue to reduce potential exposures to silica dust,” wrote Baker Hughes media relations director, Christine Mathers. Schlumberger and Hess have yet to respond to my inquiry.

OSHA records show citations for silica exposure

A search of OSHA inspection records between 2008 and 2013 shows that Halliburton and Schlumberger have been cited for violations involving air contaminants that include silica, for silica exposure and/or for respiratory protection. Halliburton’s OSHA inspection record shows five listings with such citations. Four  involve silica; two are repeat violations. One of these Halliburton locations, Parachute Creek, Colorado is the site of ongoing cleanup of a pipeline leak of benzene and natural gas liquids. The most recent such citation – a case not yet closed – is from an area of Pennsylvania with numerous fracking operations. The Schlumberger location in Kansas cited for a respiratory protection violation is in Harper County, Kansas where fracking operations are active.

Meanwhile, Association of Energy Service Companies (AESC), executive director Kenny Jordan, said that the last meeting of the AESC Silica Council attracted about a 100 participants – a clear indication of interest in the issue. What the industry is focusing on first, said Jordan, are “quick fixes,” equipment modifications that can be made easily to reduce silica exposure. While he couldn’t say and didn’t name the companies that might have new controls in place, he said a number have made such changes and that several were also conducting internal inspections regarding silica exposure. Jordan also said that NIOSH has been testing filter systems at various locations. “This is an issue that affects the entire industry,” he said, noting that solutions would also be shared throughout the industry.

So as fracking operations continue to expand across the country, we remain largely in the dark about where workers may be exposed to excessive levels of respirable silica. The OSHA inspection data offers some clues but OSHA’s presence at these sites is infrequent and exposure monitoring even less frequent. Precisely where the NIOSH field studies were conducted remains unknown to the public and it appears that no additional studies have been done to expand or follow up on this sampling. What one can hope is that alerted to the hazard, oil and gas industry companies and employers are implementing engineering controls and providing personal protective equipment to protect workers from the dangers of silica dust.

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Frankly, I think the FOIA is beside the point. We have to assume that silica exposures are high at all sites that mine or use sand for fracking, not just the ones that NIOSH studied. And I think NIOSH is right to be worried that publically disclosing the sites would compromise future research, although ethically they should have warned workers at the sites, told the operators that they were violating the law, and contacted OSHA or MSHA if they refused to control exposures. Beyond that, I'd be worried if NIOSH was forced to disclose information that would otherwise be confidential, since that precedent could be used to violate the confidentiality of worker's participating in studies, something that trade associations have vigorously lobbied for.

By Mike Wright (not verified) on 11 Jul 2013 #permalink

I appreciate your points. On the other hand, NIOSH does have authority under the OSH Act to conduct investigations at worksites for the purpose of examining these exact kinds of hazards. I wonder what the public would think about companies engaged in fracking who tried to refuse NIOSH's efforts to measure respirable dust exposures or identify other hazards.

Thanks for your comment, Mike. If the information requested meets confidentiality requirements under FOIA, we'll look forward to hearing that as part of the CDC/NIOSH response. The larger point I was hoping to make is that without knowing where excessive exposures are occurring it is difficult to have any outside oversight of measures being taken to improve such conditions. Promising companies that this information will be kept confidential in exchange for their participation in such programs does, I think, raise questions about how working conditions that are found to violate safety standards are then responded to. We haven't asked NIOSH to share names of workers involved.

Excellent points, Celeste, and I be in favor of the FOIA if I thought we'd learn anything useful. But the silica problem is probably at every site, not just the study sites. And, sadly, the companies' failure to disclose the identity of fracking chemicals is a bigger public issue than the failure to cooperate with research. So far, public outrage hasn't convinced the industry to disclose.

By Mike Wright (not verified) on 11 Jul 2013 #permalink

Mike, how times have changed. When I was at NIOSH, if memory serves me, we worked very hard to be clear that we had statutory authority to enter workplaces to conduct research that might protect workers.
This caused me problems with CDC. They wanted NIOSH to follow CDC policy of offering confidentiality when investigating hospitals and other health facilities. We cited the OSHA law in refusing to do so when NIOSH looked at the same facilities.

By Anthony Robbins (not verified) on 11 Jul 2013 #permalink