The toxicity of oil and gas waste: Exxon-Mobil pleads guilty

Earlier this month Exxon-Mobil Corporation pleaded guilty in federal court to causing the deaths of approximately 85 birds that were exposed to toxic oil and gas waste left in open air pits and tanks in five different states. These birds were protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and their deaths were a violation of the law. The birds included various duck species, grebes, owls, hawks and an ibis that landed in these waste facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.

At a minimum the pits should have been netted to prevent birds from landing in them, and the tanks should be covered. But open air toxic waste pits do not just threaten birds - they are dangerous for humans, livestock, and other wildlife species. These pits can contaminate our air, groundwater, surface water, or soil. They can even be located near homes.

As I've discussed in previous posts, 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 state regulations vary widely, as discussed in a report from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. In some places the waste is dumped near waterways or in backyards. Sometimes the waste is just buried on site.

It is time to close the loophole in federal law. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sets standards for toxic waste management to prevent harm to human health and the environment, and provides a powerful incentive for a company to minimize waste and pollution. Unless--like oil and gas waste--there is a special exemption.

Alternative solutions exist, making a change in the law sensible. 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.

More information on toxic oil and gas waste, and solutions to clean it up, can be found in NRDC's report Drilling Down.