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FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple A crew prepares an oil well for hydraulic fracturing on Sept. 6 near Watford City.

OSHA calls for silica limit: Proposed silica limit would hurt fracking industry, group says

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A proposed lower limit of silica exposure from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would drastically affect the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, industry, a trade group said.

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The American Petroleum Institute is one of about 80 organizations and industry groups that will speak in Washington, D.C., at hearings stretching from Tuesday through April 4. The hearings are a part of the rulemaking process before a rule is made final.

OSHA has proposed cutting the limit of exposure to silica to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air as averaged over an eight-hour day.

The inhalation of crystalline silica particles can cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease, according to OSHA.

Currently, OSHA enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits (PELs) for silica in general industry, construction and shipyards. It estimates the proposed rule, if implemented, would save 700 lives and prevent 1,600 cases of silicosis a year.

But industry groups say the rule is not well-researched and that the health effects aren’t sufficiently proven to warrant the new limit.

Oil and gas businesses see silica exposure in refinery operations and routine upstream and downstream operations, API said in its comments, which were made in conjunction with the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

In the submitted comments, they point out that Centers for Disease Control data shows silica-related deaths have declined by more than 90 percent with the current rule. Even with the criticism of underreporting, “there is no contradicting the reality of the clear trend towards the goal of elimination of silica-related mortality,” they wrote.

API and IPAA assert the proposed exposure limits are economically infeasible for much of the fracking industry.

“In drafting the OSH Act, Congress never intended to protect employees by putting their

employers out of business,” they write.

The organizations assert that in a “rushed analysis” of the industry, OSHA underestimated the costs the rule would have for the fracking industry to comply. The costs of following the rule would “create profound detrimental economic consequences as companies — large and small — struggle to implement control technologies that are not commercially available, not effective, cannot be used in conjunction and, in some cases, do not exist,” the organizations wrote.

Exposure to silica is common in construction — airborne silica dust occurs with cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick and block — and about 1.85 million of the 2.2 million workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica are in the construction trade, OSHA estimates. The rest are exposed through general industry, including about 25,000 in the oil and gas industry. More than 16,000 of those workers are currently exposed above the proposed levels.

“It’s the second-most common element on the surface of the earth, so it’s hard to find an industry that doesn’t have silica involved in it, at least in terms of any sort of heavy operations or moving machinery or construction,” API spokesman Zachary Cikanek said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed its own comments, charging OSHA with building its rule on “a chain of assumptions.”

It urged OSHA to withdraw the proposal because employers won’t be able to keep up with the costs not applicable to foreign competitors, Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said in a statement.

The Chamber believes OSHA failed to provide appropriate medical, scientific, technological and economic data to prove the regulation is warranted, she said, also bringing up the reduction in silica-related deaths since the 1960s.

“Of particular concern is that silica (in the form of sand) is a key component in the fracking industry and this proposal would be unworkable in that industry,” Latoff Holmes wrote.

Silica sand is a common proppant in frac fluid, and usually constitutes about 4.5 percent of the mixture, according to API.

Frac site workers are exposed to high concentrations of respirable silica dust as they work with fracturing fluids, according to OSHA.

Sources of exposure on the frac jobs include dust ejected from thief hatches on sand movers, released from conveyor belts under the movers, dust generated by truck traffic and created as the sand is dropped into or agitated in the blender hopper, OSHA said in its analysis.

One fracking services company with a large presence in North Dakota, Sandbox Logistics, is testifying in support of the rule because it’d be good for business. Its product would bring companies in compliance with the proposed rule, spokesman Cameron Oren said. The sandboxes are a gravity-fed way to transport frac sand that nearly eliminate the dust associated with blowing off sand from a trailer to a storage vessel on-site.

OSHA estimated, based on its research, that 88 percent of frac workers would require more controls to comply with the proposed rule.

It recommends compliance through “local exhaust ventilation” systems on thief hatches and conveyors, adding a water misting system and providing operator booths for the most exposed workers.

Information for the current silica standards were unavailable at press time.

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