- Associated Press - Thursday, January 12, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Certain chemicals pumped underground during hydraulic fracturing would be exempt from public records requests under a bill advancing in the Virginia Legislature.

A measure from Del. Roxann Robinson would allow the denial of requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for information about chemicals that has been deemed a trade secret. A House subcommittee advanced the measure Thursday.

Robinson, a Republican from Chesterfield County, introduced a similar measure last year. She said Thursday it’s necessary to protect the oil and gas industry and its closely held proprietary information.

But opponents said the bill could hinder first responders in an emergency and keep landowners in the dark about pollutants that might be affecting their groundwater.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rock formations and allow oil and gas to flow. The practice has opened up deposits that were previously unreachable but also raised concerns about pollution, contamination and earthquakes.

Under recently implemented state fracking regulations, well operators would be required to submit to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy a disclosure form that includes information about the chemicals and additives used in the process. The department would determine what qualifies as a trade secret and post all other information online.

David Clarke, a lobbyist for the Virginia Oil and Gas Association who spoke on behalf of Robinson’s measure, said the proposed FOIA exemption shouldn’t cause safety concerns. If someone were exposed to a chemical or a well failed, details would be made available to emergency officials, even if it involved a trade secret, he said.

But others said waiting until an emergency to release that information would be too late to prepare an adequate response.

Megan Rhyne of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government opposed the bill, saying public health oversight requires access to public information.

She pointed to the case of Flint, Michigan, where independent researchers helped expose the public health crisis over lead-tainted water, which led to criminal charges against a number of public officials.

The committee’s vote on the measure was 4-3. It now advances to the full House General Laws committee.

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