Regulators Neglected to Stop Oil and Gas Wastewater Contamination in West Virginia Creek

The United States Geological Survey recently released a scientific paper on water contamination in a West Virginia creek. USGS says that the findings demonstrate water contamination in Wolf Creek, in Fayette County, “due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site.”

This paper came right on the heels of another that studied the water quality of this same stream.

Together, the papers found elevated levels of sodium, chloride, strontium, lithium and radium, as well as endocrine-disrupting activity in the water that is high enough to block some hormone receptors and lead to adverse health effects in aquatic organisms.

Fortunately, the studies have gotten a lot of press attention. Although there has been a slowdown in fracking in the last year or so, there is never a slowdown in oil and gas waste production. Waste, such as produced water, is generated throughout the life of a wellfor decades. So even when new drilling is in a lull, waste keeps increasing—for generations to come.

NRDC is outraged at this contamination, but not shocked. This contamination comes from a site that we have been working to shut down since 2013.

And the local community has been trying to close this site for many years prior to that, filing complaints since 2004, with private residents paying for soil and water tests to prove contamination. But state and federal regulators have not taken sufficient action to clean up this site. While the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did order the operator of the site to make some changes, there’s no evidence that the operator complied with most of the orders, and the DEP never enforced its own orders despite numerous violations. The operator, who leases the land, was never forced to comply with the law.

Community residents asked the US EPA for help in 2013, and we wrote to US EPA in 2014, asking the agency to step in to stop the unauthorized and illegal injection of oil and gas wastewater occurring at this West Virginia site in Fayette County. Although we provided detailed evidence of legal violations at the site, it has been allowed to continue operation.  In 2014, working with local partners, we appealed to the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board. Water testing analyzed by Duke University at the time found elevated levels of chloride, bromide, sodium, manganese, strontium, and barium—a chemical composition typical of oil and gas wastewater in West Virginia—and inconsistent with acid mine drainage, so could not have been caused by coal mining operations in the area.

The EQB later found that DEP actions were “inconsistent with the law.” Instead of shutting down the site, however, DEP moved to issue a new permit despite ongoing and numerous violations—such as not complying with rules for mechanical integrity testing, water monitoring, and more. A former worker at the site also testified at a hearing that the operator conducted unpermitted activity at the site.

The National Park Service also wrote to the DEP in 2015, asking the agency to shut down the site due to a long-term pattern of violations, neglect, and inadequate oversight, because the contaminated creek is a tributary of the New River Gorge National River. More than 70,000 acres of land along the New River are in a national park.  Tourism is one of the main economic drivers for the County where the creek is located, and excellent water quality is essential for protecting the river, and the nearby national parks.

The USGS says that it was not able to determine if the water contamination has been caused by the two injection wells at the site, or the open air waste pits. There have been numerous violations at each over the year. We’ve asked the state and EPA to determine the cause of the contamination, but that has never occurred. We’ve been told that the pits have been closed and cleaned up, which is a good thing, but if the injection wells are causing contamination, it is certainly not enough.

Fayette County has now passed an ordinance to ban oil and gas waste disposal within its borders, but we’re not shocked that industry is suing to try to stop it.

Thanks to the USGS and the scientists from Duke and the University of Missouri for conducting this important research. And thanks to the owners of the property—because of the ongoing risk and violations, the owners of this property are now suing to have the site shut down.

But no thanks to WV DEP or US EPA for allowing this contamination to occur—and possibly to continue—for much too long, leading to dangerous levels of contaminants in Wolf Creek.

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