What's That in the Water? Exxon Mobile Dumps Toxic Waste in Pennsylvania

The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that gushed in the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days was considered the energy industry's worst environmental disaster of the year. However, countless smaller environmental disasters happened in 2010, and the newest one came to light Friday. It was from a ExxonMobil subsidiary's fracking activities that contaminated drinking water throughout Lycoming County in Pennsylvania.

"Criminal charges are unwarranted and legally baseless," representatives from the subsidiary unit XTO Energy said Thursday in an official statement. "There was no intentional, reckless or negligent misconduct by XTO." XTO's defensive reaction shows how despite the notion that fracking brings jobs to communities, the jobs could come at the cost of hurting the health and safety of community members.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office hired a company during November 2010 to recycle waste water containing toxic substances like chlorides, barium, strontium, and aluminum. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) visited the Marquadt site on Nov. 16 of that year and discovered a rear discharge valve on a storage tank had been opened and a drain plug removed. Over 50,000 gallons of toxic waste water flowed out of the tank and into the ground.

XTO/Exxon's response demonstrates the lack of regulation on fracking companies with regards to how much they reveal about their practices. Companies disclose what is a "largely self-regulated practice," keep some chemicals under wraps, and "trade secrets." 

Pennsylvania now requires the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluid to regulators, but it has a "gag rule" on the health risks. Doctors can only access chemical names and thus determine if their patients' health problems are related to them if they sign a binding confidentiality agreement. "As I understand it, it's legally binding, so if 20 years from now I hiccup that someone was exposed to zippity doo dah, I'm legally liable for that," plastic surgeon Amy Pare told NPR last May.

Though the flammability of water affected by fracking operations has become an indicator of its dangers to human health, doctors – even plastic surgeons like Pare – have seen a variety of unusual (and in her case, disfiguring) symptoms fall into a disturbing black hole because fracking companies' "trade secrets." This case attests to communities' desires to know about the human costs of energy extraction. Until fracking operations are forced to open up instead of hush up the communities they impact through payoffs, no knowledge will continue to beget no knowledge.