July 28, 2014

GAO Report: Waste Water Injection Poorly Regulated

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Diagram of a class II injection well

United States Environmental Protection Agency

Did you know that each day 2 billion – that’s 2 BILLION – gallons of fluids are injected into some 172,000 underground wells to either “stimulate” (frack) oil and gas production, or to get rid of wastewater produced in the process of oil and gas production?

That is a veritable flood of fluids; a river of injected waste.

Did you also know that most American’s get their drinking water from underground sources, sources that could be contaminated by these waste fluids if they are not carefully regulated?

All that is background to a new and alarming report from the US Government Accountability Office that finds the Environmental Protection Agency isn’t doing enough to keep drinking water free from these contaminants.

The EPA is charged with overseeing the disposal of the salty wastewater into underground injection wells. This byproduct comes out of the ground, along with oil and gas, during extraction.  They are also charged with regulating the injection of chemically-enhanced fluids into wells that are hydraulically-fractured to stimulate oil and gas production.

Although the EPA has some protections in place to keep underground sources of drinking water clean during this process, the GAO finds they don’t account for a new hazards:

The safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids…Because much of the population relies on underground sources for drinking water, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.

So, the safeguards aren’t looking to the future, and, in some ways, they do not adequately secure the present.  The study finds that the EPA does not “consistently” conduct on-site evaluations of state safety programs.  Why? According to the report, “some EPA officials” say the agency simply does not have the resources to do so.

But even before the GAO study, Propublica reported that the nation’s program to inject toxic waste deep into the earth was troubled and dangerous:

Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.

Earlier this month, Propublica also reported that California officials ordered an emergency shut down of several oil and gas wells in the state and a review of hundreds more.  The state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources stated that energy companies could be pumping waste into drinking water and that this method of waste disposal “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.”

Last year, Wyoming Public Media reported that the oil and gas industry in Wyoming has faced increased pressure to come up with a better way to dispose of waste.  The alternatives, however, are expensive.