Toxic oil and gas waste being dumped in wells with thousands of violations

There is a new must-read investigation into documented environmental contamination of groundwater around the country from oil and gas waste that has never before been brought to light. NRDC has been sounding the alarm about the dangers of oil and gas waste. It can be very toxic, and can even be disposed of in residential neighborhoods, including people's backyards--yet it is not subject to hazardous waste laws in the U.S. due to special political favors granted to the influential oil and gas industry. Because of this, NRDC asked the EPA to write new rules for toxic oil and gas waste.

The recent investigation by ProPublica, published in Scientific American, underscores the dramatic need for strong new safeguards to protect our drinking water from toxic oil and gas waste. The investigation focusses on underground injection of oil and gas waste. Current standards applicable to underground oil and gas waste disposal are inadequate to prevent toxic wastes from contaminating groundwater. Now ProPublica provides a lot more concrete evidence of this fact.

It is a long and comprehensive investigative piece; the reporter reviewed documents related to more than 220,000 well inspections. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but I will post some of the most frightening findings here (keep in mind that these wells are drilled through aquifers that are underground sources of drinking water):

  • Experts are concerned and make clear that no one fully understands the current risks. A retired EPA expert in underground injection stated: "In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted, A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."
  • A scientist at a federal lab stated: "There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth." Substances underground have been found to travel faster and farther than previously thought.
  • From 2007 to 2010, one serious violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationwide (most of these are oil and gas waste wells, but some have other types of waste -- the breakdown is not available as of yet).
  • Operators of these wells with toxic waste only have to test their safety every five years. Meaning a well could be leaking toxic waste for 4.5 years and no one would know.
  • In 2010, tests nationwide in waste disposal wells found more than 7,500 violations (again, mostly oil and gas but not all). In Texas -- one violation was issued for every three waste wells examined in 2010. Is it any wonder that no one trusts this industry to do the job right?
  • In Texas, state regulators allowed the continued injection of waste into a waste disposal well that was leaking--and did not issue any violations to the operator.
  • How irresponsible is this industry? In 2010, regulators shut down at least 47 injection wells in Kansas, 82 in Louisiana, and 144 in Wyoming. It's a good thing that state regulators are following up on these problems--but this is only after a well has been found to have problems. These problems are not being prevented in the first place.
  • An EPA scientist stated: "A lot of the concepts and a lot of the regulations that govern this whole practice of subsurface injection is kind of dated at this point."

We agree. It's past due for the EPA to write new rules for toxic oil and gas waste.