NRDC petitions EPA to apply hazardous waste rules to toxic oil and gas waste

NRDC has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the toxic wastes associated with the exploration, development and production of oil and gas under the hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). 

RCRA is our principal federal law intended to ensure the safe management of waste throughout its entire life cycle, from cradle to grave, in order to best protect human health and the environment. RCRA has separate provisions for hazardous waste. Congress gave EPA the authority to determine whether oil and gas wastes should be subject to these hazardous waste provisions. In 1988, EPA ruled that oil and gas wastes are exempt from these hazardous waste provisions--even if the waste is toxic.

EPA made this 1988 decision despite the fact that the agency’s own analysis found oil and gas waste contained very high levels of toxic substances and had endangered human health (details can be found in NRDC’s report, Drilling Down). An EPA staff member said this decision was made “for solely political reasons.”

NRDC believes it is time for EPA to reconsider its 1988 decision. A lot has happened in the last twenty years in the world of oil and gas exploration and production. First, there are a lot more data available that make clear the toxicity of some oil and gas waste, and there is plenty of evidence that these wastes are being released into the environment, endangering human health and the environment. Current State regulations and enforcement are inadequate and allow these releases.

What is perhaps most horrifying about the current disposal of toxic waste being created by oil and gas production is that it can be dumped, without protections, right in the backyards of families across the nation, even if the family doesn’t want it there, due to split estate situations. Our petition provides examples; here’s one: analysis of soil samples taken from a residential property in Texas, where pit sludge had been spread on the ground less than 300 feet from a residence, confirmed the presence of numerous hydrocarbons identified as Recognized and Suspected human carcinogens and neurotoxins (1, 2, 4 Trimethylbenzene, 1, 3, 5 Trimethylbenzene, 4-Isopropyltoluene, Acetone, Benzene, Carbon disulfide, Ethylbenzene, Isopropylbenzene, m&m Xylene, n-Butylbenzene, n-Propylbenzene, o- Xylene, sec-Butylbenzene, tert-Butylbenzene, Toluene). The family living here, including a small child, all reported skin rashes after the waste was spread on their land.

The industry has expanded dramatically since 1988, meaning there is a lot more of this toxic waste that is not sufficiently regulated than there used to be. But there are now many ways the industry can reduce the amount of its toxic waste, reduce the toxicity of its waste, and manage its waste more safely. And the silver lining of this cloud, if there is one, is that the use of these safer practices often results in significant cost savings to the industry. There are win-win solutions, but without government stepping in and requiring them, they are not being adopted by the industry except in isolated locations.

Updating the rules governing toxic oil and gas waste is long past overdue. Americans from around the country report health symptoms in their families or their livestock--destined for our dinner tables. To the extent that our society needs fossil fuels, it’s time for the oil and gas industry to enter the 21st century and clean up its toxic mess using the best available waste management technologies to better protect our health and environment.