Both National Public Radio and CBS's 60 Minutes recently reported on a lawsuit in Ecuador where rural citizens are suing Chevron for polluting their environment. One of Chevron's claims is that the methods used in Ecuador -- including unlined, open air waste pits -- are legal in the United States and, by implication, just fine for human health and the environment. Just because unlined, open air toxic waste pits are permitted in the U.S. doesn't mean they are safe for human health or the environment. These pits can contaminate air, groundwater, surface water, or soil, and present hazards to humans, wildlife, and livestock. Research found increased cancer risks associated with living in the communities in Ecuador where these activities took place.
Most oil and gas waste in the U.S.--regardless of how toxic it may be--is exempt from federal hazardous waste regulations. That has left regulation of these materials up to the states, and they all handle it differently. Sometimes the waste is dumped near waterways or in backyards. A recent report from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law reviewed different state regulations for oil and gas production. Among the report's findings are that some states have stricter standards than the practices in Ecuador: some states specify minimum distance requirements from pits to important values such as natural resources, schools, and hospitals; and some states require pits to be lined and set standards for liner integrity. Wyoming mandates that so-called "pitless" drilling systems be used in areas where groundwater is less than 20 feet below the surface. While some of our waste management standards in the U.S. are stricter than Ecuador, we have a long way to go before we can provide an appropriate model for other countries.
Pitless drilling, also known as 'closed-loop' drilling, uses storage tanks instead of open air pits. Already in use by many companies, comparisons have found these systems to be cost-effective and even profitable. They maximize the ability to reuse and recycle drilling fluids, there is no need to pay for pit construction, and truck traffic and water use can be reduced. Pitless drilling should be used in more places, especially near any sensitive resources or in communities. Other oil and gas waste management solutions include reducing the use of toxic materials in the first place, and finding less toxic alternatives.
For more information on oil and gas waste management and solutions to clean it up, please see NRDC's report Drilling Down.