Industry Watchdog Asks USDA to Ban Use of Wastewater From Fracking and Sewage Systems for Organic Food Production

August 25th, 2015

The Cornucopia Institute has formally called on the USDA to tighten federal standards to prohibit the use of fracking wastewater from oil and gas drilling for irrigation in organic food production.  In addition, the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group is also asking the USDA to ban wastewater from the nation’s municipal sewage treatment systems.  Solid waste produced by the same facilities is currently prohibited.

Fracking Wastewater Pit
Source: Faces of Fracking

The organic industry watchdog has launched a national petition drive to the USDA calling for new regulations to prohibit the wastewater practices.

Cornucopia pointed to research that shows that the copious amounts of wastewater, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing technique in gas and oil production, is contaminated with toxic chemicals and oil. Recent reporting has indicated its use in the growing of organic food in California.  Effluent from sewage plants, which co-mingles waste from domestic and industrial sources, can contain pathogens and drug residues in addition to heavy metals and toxic chemicals.  This is also a concern of Cornucopia’s.

“Because of these potential contaminants, spreading sewage sludge is explicitly banned in organic production,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “To keep organic food as pure as possible it’s important that we quickly promulgate regulations that will ban risky wastewater uses, as tempting as they are in drought-impacted states like California, from contaminating our food supply.”

Published research indicates that certain plants are very efficient in taking up chemical and pharmaceutical residues from the soil where they then can accumulate in the plant’s tissue.

“Recycled/treated oil or gas wastewater used for irrigation can be contaminated by a variety of chemicals, including industrial solvents such as acetone and methylene chloride, and hydrocarbons (oil components),” said Jerome Rigot, PhD, a staff scientist at Cornucopia.

Rigot continued, “As an example, irrigation water provided by Chevron contains a variety of contaminants, including several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); various volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, toluene, xylenes, and acetone; several hydrocarbons; a high concentration of sodium chloride (table salt), other halide salts (bromide, fluoride, chloride), heavy metals, and radioactive metals (2 radium isotopes). Many of these compounds are potential and known carcinogens.”

Fossil fuel industry lobbyists have succeeded in preventing the public from even knowing what chemicals are being used in the fracking wells. This has exposed groundwater, and the general environment in many parts of the country, to unknown but likely risks. California has tougher disclosure requirements.

“This is a wake-up call that the organic standards need to be tightened,” said Dr. Rigot.
The organic standards were developed before the fracking industry emerged.

Cornucopia’s Kastel added, “Our contention is also that there are toxic constituents contained in that effluent of municipal wastewater being used for irrigation.  Since the organic standards clearly ban sewage sludge (what the industry politely calls ‘biosolids’), those compounds would disqualify that wastewater from use in organics as well.”

Sewage sludge was banned from organics due to concerns that, in the U.S., the domestic waste stream and industrial sewage are combined thus rendering the byproducts contaminated with heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other toxins found in industrial sewage.  Cornucopia noted that all of the sewage sludge, and a vast preponderance of wastewater, that is currently being landspread is being applied to conventional farm fields.

“We urge everyone concerned about these wastewater practices to sign the petition to the USDA.  But while we wait for the USDA to take action, a little research to learn where your organic food is coming from will pay dividends,” Kastel said.

Cornucopia states that the vast majority of family-scale organic farms around the country do not use any risky irrigation water. The families that farm these operations are eating the food out of their own fields, unlike the owners of large industrial operations, producing both organic and conventional produce, that typically work under contract to a major agribusiness.

“By eating as close to home as possible, and buying  food that is labeled both local and certified organic, consumers are getting the freshest and most nutritious food possible, and protecting their families from industrial-scale operations that might be more likely to use risky practices,” said Kastel.

Correction/clarification: an earlier version of this new story referenced fracking water being used in organic production in the Modesto, California area. The wastewater being used in Modesto is coming from their municipal sewage treatment plant. Published reports of water from hydraulic fracturing, being used in organic production, reference Kern County, California.


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