In a follow-up report, Earthworks once again warns the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the environment from hazardous waste from oil and gas drilling.
“Still Wasting Away” builds on a report from 2015 that called attention to exemptions or loopholes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has permitted for around two decades. And, four years later, the “volume of waste is increasing per well and per unit of energy.”
There are 1.3 million oil and gas facilities in the United States. An oil and gas “threat map” indicates about 12.6 million people live within a half mile of these facilities.
The U.S. leads the world in producing toxic oil and gas waste, and from now until 2030, the country is expected to “unleash 60 percent of all new oil and gas production globally.” That is four times more than any other country.
President Donald Trump’s administration has granted much more influence to fossil fuel industry interests to deregulate and expand loopholes throughout the U.S. in ways that exacerbate the public health and environmental hazards for communities.
Yet, the regulatory capture the industry enjoys is not entirely a product of Trump. The EPA under President Barack Obama had an opportunity to end an exemption carved out of a regulation in 1988 but chose to maintain that loophole.
According to Earthworks, before the “shale boom,” the EPA submitted a report to Congress that acknowledged that oil and gas waste contained a “wide variety of hazardous constituents.” However, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the waste was granted an exemption from the regulation’s definition of “hazardous.”
Officials made this decision despite the fact that they found contaminant levels higher than “one hundred times the EPA’s health-based standards.”
This development was a result of industry lobbying. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) fought against regulation as early as 1979. Individuals with ties to industry have promoted a state regulatory body, State Review Of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc. (STRONGER), to ensure states determine which regulations are adopted, which can undercut the federal government.
In 2010, when Lisa Jackson was the EPA administrator for the Obama administration, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) urged Jackson to reconsider the industry exemption in the RCRA.
“Numerous reports and data produced since the EPA’s Regulatory Determination […] which quantify the waste’s toxicity, threats to human health and the environment, inadequate state regulatory programs, and readily available solutions,” NRDC argued.
The EPA never responded to NRDC, but the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) boasted about their ability to craft the RCRA so that hazardous waste from oil and gas production was exempt.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobbying group, said the “oil and gas industry produces about 18 billion barrels (31.5 gallons each) of wastewater annually. That’s enough toxic waste to fill over 7 billion bathtubs every year.”
“Liquid wastewater volumes generated within the first year of production increased up to 1440 percent between 2011 and 2016,” according to the Earthworks study.
Several states have weakened rules since 2015 and “most oil and gas states” still cannot say “for sure how much waste is being produced, where it all ends up, and what happens over time after it gets there.”
“Many waste sites are built in disadvantaged communities with higher than average illiteracy rates, aging or minority populations, and people living below the poverty line. In other words, the ‘Achilles’ Heel’ of the oil and gas industry is stepping down much harder on disempowered communities.”
One key example is in Ohio. There are Class II wastewater injection wells in at least 44 counties. Twenty-two of the counties are in Appalachia, where the median household income is typically below $20,000 per year.
Toxic waste travels through communities, creating “heavy truck traffic” and putting communities at risk of spills and higher emissions. Discharges into bodies of water are not usually marked, which can affect the health of swimmers, boaters, fishermen, etc.
Several contaminants in the waste are radioactive. The development of the Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale has contributed to higher levels of radioactivity, which is brought to the surface through “produced water, drill cuttings, and drilling muds.” Deposits can be left in sludges that accumulate on pipes or other equipment.
The EPA is aware that there are “high concentrations halides, including bromide and chloride, interacts with disinfection products used in drinking water systems downstream. The byproducts of these interactions, such as trihalomethanes, can increase the risks of cancers and other human illnesses.”
As Earthworks cites, “A study released in 2017 determined that wastewater is one of the top three materials spilled in fracking-related activities in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Colorado, and North Dakota. Spills of untreated waste can persist in the environment for years; wastewater spills in North Dakota have persisted up to four years after spill events and included elevated total dissolved solids (TDS) and the accumulation of carcinogenic radium in soil and sediment.”
States allow for this waste to be dumped into rivers. Cancer-causing trihalomethanes (THMs) have been found by the Pittsburgh Sewer Authority from upstream discharges.
The EPA recognized in internal memos that this kind of pollution was “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”
Still, the agency has allowed itself to serve the interests of industry rather than correct loopholes that enable exponential increases in pollution as oil and gas projects expand despite the looming threat of climate chaos.
“Even if we stop all new drilling and fracking immediately, the flood of toxic waste streams will continue to grow for decades,” declared Melissa Troutman, the lead author of the study. “In spite of industry claims of innovation, the risks from oil and gas waste are getting worse, not better.”