By Tyler Hammel
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - Open government advocates are alarmed at a legislative subcommittee's approval of a bill that would hide from the public record the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said House Bill 1678 would violate the public's right to know about possible environmental and health hazards posed by fracking, in which liquids are injected into the ground to extract oil or gas.
"They would shield information from the public and local government and would jeopardize their ability to monitor public health," Rhyne said.
Last week, a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the bill, which was sponsored by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Midlothian. If the full committee agrees, the measure will go to the House floor for consideration.
Robinson, who introduced a similar bill last year, said the bill is intended to protect trade secrets of companies that use hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground to break open rock formations containing natural gas and oil.
The bill would exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act "chemical ingredient names, the chemical abstracts number for a chemical ingredient, or the amount or concentration of chemicals or ingredients used to stimulate a well."
Robinson noted that her measure includes exceptions for health care providers and first responders in the event of an emergency. They would be able to access the information about chemicals from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
"The industry has been fracking in Virginia for decades without any disclosure requirements and with a remarkable record of safe natural gas production," Robinson said.
At last Thursday's subcommittee meeting, Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, spoke in favor of the bill. He said it strikes a balance between protecting the industry's secrets while maintaining full disclosure to regulators.
"With this protection, Virginia would still have one of the strongest chemical disclosure requirements in the country," Morin said.
Fracking has attracted attention in recent years for potential pollution in places such as Pavillion, Wyoming, where former EPA scientist Dominic DiGiulio published a report connecting contaminated water to fracking waste.
Opponents of Robinson's bill, including Travis Blankenship of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said the measure would prevent landowners from knowing about chemicals that could affect their well water.
"We feel this legislation goes far beyond protecting the competitive trade secrets the legislation attempts to get at and actively prevents landowners from knowing chemicals affecting their drinking water," Blankenship said.
Another opponent, Emily Francis of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the bill would put trade secrets in a black box hidden from citizens and could pose dangers for local governments.
"Specifically, we are concerned that localities would not have access to this information ahead of time in order to prepare for any potential accident," Francis said.
The bill contains language that would allow for emergency personnel and first responders to be informed of the chemicals used in fracking in the event of an emergency. But Rhyne fears this would not give first responders enough time to prepare and would put them at risk.
"This is not quite the same, but in 9/11 there were so many people exposed to the chemicals in fluorescent light bulbs that exploded during the towers' collapse," Rhyne said. "You're exposed to chemicals, and then you develop illnesses later."
Robinson has a similar bill, HB 1679, scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the Natural Resources Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.
HB 1679 would require fracking chemicals exempted under HB 1678 to be disclosed to the director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. It would allow the director to disclose the chemical information to state and local officials assisting in an emergency but would prevent further dissemination.