ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

The Trillion-Gallon Loophole: Lax Rules for Drillers that Inject Pollutants Into the Earth

As the boom in oil and gas drilling sends a surge of waste into underground injection wells, safeguards for disposing of these materials are sometimes being ignored or circumvented.

The remains of a tanker truck after an explosion ripped through an injection well site in a pasture outside of Rosharon, Texas, on Jan. 13, 2003, killing three workers. The fire occurred as two tanker trucks, including the one above, were unloading thousands of gallons of drilling wastewater. (Photo courtesy of the Chemical Safety Board)

On a cold, overcast afternoon in January 2003, two tanker trucks backed up to an injection well site in a pasture outside Rosharon, Texas. There, under a steel shed, they began to unload thousands of gallons of wastewater for burial deep beneath the earth.

The waste – the byproduct of oil and gas drilling – was described in regulatory documents as a benign mixture of salt and water. But as the liquid rushed from the trucks, it released a billowing vapor of far more volatile materials, including benzene and other flammable hydrocarbons.

The truck engines, left to idle by their drivers, sucked the fumes from the air, revving into a high-pitched whine. Before anyone could react, one of the trucks backfired, releasing a spark that ignited the invisible cloud.

Fifteen-foot-high flames enveloped the steel shed and tankers. Two workers died, and four were rushed to the hospital with burns over much of their bodies. A third worker died six weeks later.

What happened that day at Rosharon was the result of a significant breakdown in the nation’s efforts to regulate the handling of toxic waste, a ProPublica investigation shows.

The site at Rosharon is what is known as a “Class 2” well. Such wells are subject to looser rules and less scrutiny than others designed for hazardous materials. Had the chemicals the workers were disposing of that day come from a factory or a refinery, it would have been illegal to pour them into that well. But regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the last three decades made it legal to dump similar substances into the Rosharon site – as long as they came from drilling.

Injection wells have proliferated over the last 60 years, in large part because they are the cheapest, most expedient way to manage hundreds of billions of gallons of industrial waste generated in the U.S. each year. Yet the dangers of injection are well known: In accidents dating back to the 1960s, toxic materials have bubbled up to the surface or escaped, contaminating aquifers that store supplies of drinking water.

There are now more than 150,000 Class 2 wells in 33 states, into which oil and gas drillers have injected at least 10 trillion gallons of fluid.  The numbers have increased rapidly in recent years, driven by expanding use of hydraulic fracturing to reach previously inaccessible resources.

ProPublica analyzed records summarizing more than 220,000 well inspections conducted between late 2007 and late 2010, including more than 194,000 for Class 2 wells. We also reviewed federal audits of state oversight programs, interviewed dozens of experts and explored court documents, case files, and the evolution of underground disposal law over the past 30 years.

Our examination shows that, amid growing use of Class 2 wells, fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented. State and federal regulators often do little to confirm what pollutants go into wells for drilling waste. They rely heavily on an honor system in which companies are supposed to report what they are pumping into the earth, whether their wells are structurally sound, and whether they have violated any rules. 

More than 1,000 times in the three-year period examined, operators pumped waste into Class 2 wells at pressure levels they knew could fracture rock and lead to leaks. In at least 140 cases, companies injected waste illegally or without a permit.

In several instances, records show, operators did not meet requirements to identify old or abandoned wells near injection sites until waste flooded back up to the surface, or found ways to cheat on tests meant to make sure wells aren’t leaking.

“The program is basically a paper tiger,” said Mario Salazar, a former senior technical advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency who worked with its injection regulation program for 25 years. While wells that handle hazardous waste from other industries have been held to increasingly tough standards, Salazar said, Class 2 wells remain a gaping hole in the system. “There are not enough people to look at how these wells are drilled … to witness whether what they tell you they will do is in fact what they are doing.”

Thanks in part to legislative measures and rulemaking dating back to the late 1970s, material from oil and gas drilling is defined as nonhazardous, no matter what it contains. Oversight of Class 2 wells is often relegated to overstretched, understaffed state oil and gas agencies, which have to balance encouraging energy production with protecting the environment. In some areas, funding for enforcement has dropped even as drilling activity has surged, leading to more wells and more waste overseen by fewer inspectors.

“Class 2 wells constitute a serious problem,” said John Apps, a leading geoscientist and injection expert who works with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The risk to water? I think it’s high, partially because of the enormous number of these wells and the fact that they are not regulated with the same degree of conscientiousness.”

In response to questions about the adequacy of oversight, the EPA, which holds primary regulatory authority over injection wells, reissued a statement it supplied to ProPublica for an earlier article in June.

“Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done,” a spokesperson wrote. “EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program."

Some at the EPA and at the Department of Justice, which prosecutes environmental crimes, say the system’s blind spots suggest that many more violations likely go undiscovered – at least until they mushroom into a crisis.

Firefighters extinguish the blaze after an explosion ripped through an injection well site in Rosharon, Texas, on Jan. 13, 2003, killing three workers. (Photo courtesy of the Chemical Safety Board)

That’s what happened at Rosharon.

The accident prompted the EPA to examine what else had been dumped at the site, ultimately exposing a scheme by a company that was not involved in the explosion, Texas Oil and Gathering, to pass off deadly chemicals from a petroleum refining plant as saltwater from drilling.  

The switch saved the company substantial fees by allowing it to dispose of the material in a Class 2 well, instead of a more stringently controlled well for hazardous waste, federal investigators said.

Texas Oil and Gathering’s owner and operations manager were convicted of conspiring to dump illegal waste and violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. Both declined to comment for this article.

Texas officials acknowledged that they had not looked beyond the paperwork submitted by the operators using the well. The delivery trucks weren’t inspected; the wastewater was not sampled.

“Staff had no reason to believe at the time that such testing was necessary at this facility,’’ Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry activity in the state, wrote in an email. “The likelihood of unpermitted material being disposed of is low.’’

William Miller, the EPA’s chief investigator on the case, points out that the only reason anyone was held accountable for injection-related violations was because the site blew up.

“If you can get the stuff down the well how is anyone ever going to know what it was?” said Miller, who retired from the EPA in 2011. “There is no way to recover it. It’s an easy way to commit a crime and not have any evidence left of it afterwards.”


States and Industry Resist Environmental Protections

One reason that Texas Oil and Gathering was able to dump toxic waste for years without getting caught is that environmental regulations governing how the oil and gas industry disposes of material underground were weakened almost as soon as they were written.

A series of injection accidents beginning in the 1960s – involving pesticide waste in Colorado, dioxins in Beaumont, Texas, and drilling waste that spread for miles through a drinking water aquifer in Arkansas – prompted lawmakers to impose tougher rules on injection wells.

Wells were divided into classes, depending on the source of the waste they handled. Class 1 wells for chemical, pharmaceutical and other industrial wastes, along with Class 2 wells for the oil and gas industry, were subjected to tough controls under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. From the start, the EPA says, oil and gas waste was treated as less toxic than waste from other industries, but all such material was seen as dangerous to drinking water.

Companies drilling the wells were required to do geological modeling to ensure that surrounding rock layers would not allow waste to escape through fissures or fault lines. They also were required to check for the presence of other wells that could be a conduit for contamination.  The EPA set baseline standards and mandated periodic inspections for defects. In many cases, states oversaw their implementation.

The ink had barely dried on the new regulations when the oil and gas industry – aided by sympathetic state regulators who thought their existing oversight was sufficient – began arguing that its waste should be treated differently.

Industry officials lobbied for state oil and gas agencies, some of which already had rules in place, to oversee Class 2 wells, not federal or local environmental officials. Some argued state energy regulators had greater expertise in well construction and regional geology.

In 1980, California Rep. Henry Waxman sponsored a measure that allowed the EPA to delegate authority to oversee Class 2 injection to state oil and gas regulators, even if the rules they applied varied from the Safe Drinking Water Act and federal guidelines.

A few years later, Dick Stamets, New Mexico’s chief oil and gas regulator at the time, told a crowd of state regulators and industry representatives that the Waxman amendment was a biblical deliverance from oppressive federal oversight for the drilling industry.

“The Pharaoh EPA did propose regulations and there was chaos upon the earth,” Stamets said. “The people groaned and labored, and great was their suffering until Moses Section 1425 (the Waxman amendment) did lead them to the Promised Land.”

In the late 1980s, the EPA moved to impose more stringent measures on injection wells after Congress banned injection of ”hazardous” waste. The new rules barred underground dumping unless companies could prove the chemicals weren’t a health threat. To earn permission to inject the waste,  companies would have to conduct exhaustive scientific reviews to dispose of hazardous materials, proving their waste wouldn’t migrate underground for at least 10,000 years.

The energy industry moved preemptively to shield itself from these changes, too. The Safe Drinking Water Act prohibited the EPA from interfering with the economics of the oil and gas industry unless there was an imminent threat to health or the environment. The industry argued that its waste was mostly harmless brine and that testing and inspecting hundreds of thousands of wells for waste that would qualify as “hazardous” would delay drillers or cost them a fortune.  

“It would have been crippling to U.S. oil and gas production,” said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Fuller was a former staff member for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, whose ranking member at the time, the late Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, led the fight against the hazardous waste rule. “So yes, the industry was very aggressively seeking some mechanism to address those consequences.”

Bentsen had won the industry a temporary reprieve in 1980 by persuading Congress to redefine any substance that resulted from drilling – or “producing” – an oil or gas well as “non-hazardous,” regardless of its chemical makeup, pending EPA study.  In 1988, the EPA made it permanent, handing oil and gas companies a landmark exemption.  From then on, benzene from the fertilizer industry was considered hazardous, threatening health and underground water supplies; benzene derived from wells for the oil and gas industry was not.

The effect was that the largest waste stream headed for underground injection, that from the oil and gas industry, was exempted from one of the most effective parts of environmental rules governing hazardous waste disposal.  

“A blanket exemption without any sense of what the actual chemistry of these wastewaters is, is very concerning,” said Briana Mordick, a geologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

Other protections also began to unravel, widening the gap between Class 1 and Class 2 well regulations. Both regulators and the industry regularly refer to drilling waste as “salt water” even though, according to a 2002 EPA internal training document obtained by ProPublica, “on any given day, the injectate of a Class II-D well has the potential to contain hazardous concentrations of solvents, acids, and other… hazardous wastes.”

Once the wastes were defined as nonhazardous, there was little justification for holding Class 2 wells to the same rules as other waste being injected deep underground.

Today, for example, Class 1 wells for hazardous waste are tested for pressure continuously and are supposed to be inspected for cracks and leaks every 12 months. Oil and gas wells – though the goal is to inspect their sites annually – have to be tested only once every five years.

Injection wells are known to cause earthquakes, so Class 1 wells usually have rigorous seismic and geologic siting requirements. Often, Class 2 wells do not. An EPA staff member might spend an entire year reviewing an application for a new hazardous waste well. Class 2 wells are often permitted in bulk, meaning hundreds can be green-lighted in a matter of days.

Where Class 1 hazardous waste is injected, companies have to inspect a two-mile radius for old wells, making sure contaminants will have no avenue to shoot back up into drinking water aquifers or to the surface. The minimum standard for oil and gas companies is to inspect within 400 yards, even though it is widely believed, according to internal EPA memorandums obtained by ProPublica, that such a rule is arbitrarily defined, runs against “much existing evidence” and “may not afford adequate protection” of drinking water.

EPA officials acknowledge that their Class 1 regulations represent the best practices to keep water safe and that the risk of a Class 2 well leaking is no different than the risk of a Class 1 well leaking. The contrast in regulations reflects “varying legal authorities, not varying levels of confidence,” an agency spokeswoman wrote in an email, referring to the mandate not to let environmental rules interfere with the nation’s drilling progress.

State injection regulators counter that much drilling-related waste is put in the same geologic formations that produce oil and gas, in which contaminants like benzene naturally occur. The water close to these wells is often already undrinkable, they say, so lesser protections make sense.

According to the EPA’s most recent inventory, the number of Class 2 wells is near an all-time high.  

Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and California use tens of thousands of Class 2 wells to push out oil and gas or dispose of fracking fluids and “produced” water, as the waste derived from drilling is called. In North Dakota, injection permits have increased tenfold, with more wells being permitted in one month – September 2011 –than is typical in an entire year. New Mexico issued twice as many permits last year as it did in 2007. Ohio injected twice as much waste in 2011 as it did in 2006 and is evaluating applications for dozens of new injection sites. largely for waste exported by Pennsylvania and New York, where such wells are deemed unsafe.

As much as 70 percent of the waste destined for Class 2 facilities would be considered toxic if it were not for the loopholes in the law, according to Wilma Subra, a chemist and activist who sits on the board of STRONGER, a partnership of oil and gas industry representatives and state regulators aimed at bolstering state standards.

Recently, Stark Concerned Citizens, an anti-drilling group, asked Ohio regulators why radioactive materials such as radium weren’t identified or disclosed when injected into Class 2 wells.

“The law allows it,” Tom Tomastik, a geologist with Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources and a national expert on injection well regulation, replied in a Sept. 17 email. “It does not matter what is in it. As long as it comes from the oil and gas field it can be injected.”


Well Operators Game Safety Tests

When Carl Weller showed up, shovel in hand, at a Kentucky farm field dotted with injection wells in June 2007, he was acting on a tip.  Weller, a contracted EPA injection inspector, was an expert in testing for what regulators call “mechanical integrity,” using air pressure to check if wells have leaks or cracks. 

Such tests are among the only ways to know whether cement and steel well structures are intact, preventing brine and other chemicals from reaching drinking water.

Using his shovel, Weller dug around the top of a well, unearthing the steel tubing near the surface. A few inches down, he came across an apparatus he had never seen before: A section of high-pressure tubing ran out of the well bore and connected to a three-foot-long section of steel pipe, sealed at both ends. The apparatus appeared designed to divert air pumped into the well into the pipe instead, making the well test as if it were airtight. 

“The only reason that I know of that that device would be installed would be to perform a false mechanical integrity test, more than likely because the well itself would not pass,” Weller testified in 2009 as part of a case against the well’s operator. The EPA did not make Weller available to comment for this article.

When EPA inspectors kept digging, they found the buried devices on 10 more wells.

The case stunned regulators. Weller had been inspecting the site’s injection wells, which were used to enhance the recovery of oil, for the better part of a decade, certifying them as safe.  After the EPA’s discoveries, workers at the company that operated the wells, Roseclare Oil, accused its manager, Daniel Lewis, of having conspired to cheat the tests for much of that time.  

In 2009, Lewis was convicted of a felony charge for gaming the safety tests on Roseclare’s wells and was sentenced to 3 years probation and a $5,000 fine. He maintains his innocence, saying the wells were rigged by his father, who ran the company’s local operations until his death, but said such practices were typical in Kentucky’s oil and gas industry. “I’d say it’s pretty common,” said Lewis, whose probation was commuted in 2011.  “But it’s not something people go around talking about either.”

From Lewis’ perspective, injection well operators sometimes have little choice but to try to fool inspectors. Many wells are decades old and were drilled before the current regulations were written. Some are decrepit, their cement aging and cracked. They also can’t be easily – or cheaply – repaired.

Lewis, who is now a part-owner of Roseclare and continues to run its operations, said that before wells were due for EPA inspections he would pretest them himself. If one failed, he’d enter problem-solving mode, prepping the site for the EPA’s arrival. Two of his employees testified that he ordered them to fabricate and install the diverters.

“You go and work in it and try to get it to hold and it won’t hold,” Lewis said of the wells. “What are you going to do? It’s kind of a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Randy Ream, the Assistant U.S. Attorney for Kentucky’s Western District who prosecuted the case against Lewis, called his scheme unusually elaborate but agreed that efforts to get around the rules for injection wells are common. Sometimes, he said, they result in the contamination of private drinking water wells.

“We have people who have constructed wells that are not certified injection wells, or we have people who will put their brine in a tank and carry it over and put it in somebody else’s well,” Ream said.  “One guy, he’s got oil coming out of his shower head.”

“There is just so much brine,” Ream added, “and you have to get rid of it.”


So Many Wells, So Few Inspectors

One obstacle to more effective enforcement in Kentucky and elsewhere, Ream said, is that regulators cannot always keep up with well tests and inspections.

According to EPA records, Kentucky has 3,403 Class 2 wells, which are supposed to be tested for mechanical integrity once every five years. But since 2007, an average of just 253 wells a year have been tested, less than half as many as there should have been to remain on schedule.

A spokeswoman for the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta said in an email that only half of Kentucky’s injection wells are actively used and only active wells can be tested. She said mechanical integrity tests are performed on each well every 36 months, but did not address the discrepancy between this schedule and the number of tests reflected in EPA data.

The EPA employs just six people to check its wells across the southeast, not just in Kentucky, but in Tennessee and Florida, too. Those same people are also responsible for working with state inspection programs in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, which have their own inspection staffs.

Most states aim to visit injection sites at least once a year, and some meet or exceed that schedule, EPA records show. Ohio, for example, recently added staff dedicated exclusively to injection oversight and visits its active injection sites every 12 weeks. (Ohio also insists that Class 2 wells meet many of the more stringent testing and permitting regulations it uses for Class 1 hazardous waste wells.)

“Ohio’s [rules] are based on what we felt we needed to develop to continue to alleviate any concerns,” said Tomastik, of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources. “Obviously without regulatory presence in the field, the operator is not concerned about operating within the requirements.”

But understaffing seems to be endemic across drilling states, especially where state regulatory agencies are responsible for checking both producing oil and gas wells and injection wells for waste or to enhance production.

In Montana, EPA auditors noted that inspectors are choosing which wells to inspect and have a “significant” workload.  In North Dakota, EPA auditors also noted the pressures of “exponential” growth and an “increasing workload.” 

To meet the goal of inspecting each well annually, Texas inspectors would have to visit eight wells a day, every day, including Sundays and Christmas. That’s after Texas’ Railroad Commission hired 65 staffers last year to help inspect the state’s 428,000 wells.

Nye, the commission’s spokeswoman, said the state had sufficient funding and inspected each of its commercial disposal wells twice last year.

“The Commission has a stringent and comprehensive review process for these wells,” Nye wrote in an email.  “Railroad Commission staff work diligently to ensure saltwater disposal wells are not and will not be a problem.”

But inspectors don’t check on private disposal wells, which are far more numerous, with the same regularity. Nor do they keep a schedule for when officials should conduct such visits.

Other states are struggling under similar burdens. In Wyoming, inspectors would also have to check eight wells a day for each well to be checked once a year – a pace possible if wells are clustered together, experts said, but otherwise difficult to achieve. In West Virginia and Kansas, inspectors would have to check seven wells per day.  

Visiting injection wells often ranks low among inspectors’ priorities unless there is an accident or spill, according to a 2007 Texas auditor’s report. The most urgent responsibility for regulators, beyond responding to emergencies, is typically overseeing the development of new oil and gas wells.

The result is that several years can pass between inspections of many injection well sites. In 2010, state regulators visited less than half of the Class 2 sites that a federal well inventory shows they were responsible for monitoring, ProPublica’s analysis showed.  EPA inspectors checked on such wells even less frequently, visiting less than one-quarter of the sites under their jurisdiction in 2010.

“I don’t give a darn whether you have federal regulations, or a squeaky clean permitting system,” said Bill Bryson, a member of the Kansas Geological Survey and the former head of Kansas’ oil and gas commission. “If you don’t have somebody going out and looking at the wells it doesn’t do any good, and if you don’t have the right people looking … it doesn’t do any good either.”

Much of the problem with oversight comes down to money, critics say. In some states, budgets and staff for oil and gas agencies have dropped relative to the number of new wells being drilled over the last nine years.

Kansas employs about the same number of inspectors as it did in 2003, even though it drills four times as many new wells. New drilling has nearly doubled in Louisiana over the same period, but the state’s enforcement staff has remained static and its oil and gas budget has increased modestly. In Illinois, drilling has nearly doubled, while the number of enforcement staff has been reduced.  

Since the Underground Injection Control program is run under a federal mandate, states rely partly on money from the EPA to fund oversight and enforcement. Federal dollars make up 20 percent of Texas’ budget, for example. But in the last 22 years, the EPA’s annual operating budget for injection has remained about the same: $10 million. Taking inflation into account, funding has dropped at least 40 percent from 1990 to 2012, though the regulations for all well classes have only grown more complex.

“The UIC program has been flat funded for years,” said Dan Jarvis, the field operations manager for Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.  “With more manpower, obviously you put them on the ground and you’re going to have better compliance. Our field people are some of the greatest guys going, but they are overworked.”

The EPA declined to disclose the operating budget for regional offices that monitor waste wells under federal jurisdiction or oversee state injection programs. Documents show, however, that in 2011 the agency suspended its travel budget for visits to some of the states that have the largest injection programs, including Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

“Do you think we are doing more now than we were doing 30 years ago? No, there is no money,” said Salazar, the former EPA injection expert. “There are not enough people to know what is going on. It is the ideal storm for industry. Less and less people, more and more things that the EPA has to do.”

Ultimately, much of the responsibility for meeting EPA standards falls to companies themselves. Some operators routinely exceed the minimum requirements of injection regulations, says Hughbert Collier, who runs a Texas environmental engineering firm that consults with injection well operators. They conduct their own integrity tests every year and make sure employees visit well sites once a month.

But operators inclined to cut corners have little to hold them back.

“What most people would be surprised about is that regulators don’t have real good control over everything that goes on in the regulated community,” said Miller, the former EPA criminal investigator in Texas. “Most of our environmental law requires self-reporting and that requires honest people.”

When violations are identified – such as the 140 times waste was illegally injected and noted in the regulatory reports – the consequences can be minimal, and only in rare cases do transgressions rise to the level of criminal prosecution. In the three years of national data reviewed by ProPublica, which included more than 24,000 formal notices of violations, only one case was referred to criminal investigators.

Usually, violations result in citations or informal warnings. If operators do not address violations, then modest fines may be levied; in some cases, wells are temporarily shut down. There is no central source of information on the size of fines, but an audit of Louisiana’s injection program provides a glimpse: In 2011, the state collected an average of $158 for each violation.

After three deaths, two federal worker safety investigations and a criminal prosecution, few injection sites nationwide received as much regulatory scrutiny as those in Rosharon, Texas.  Yet, despite all the attention, the wells there later failed on the most basic level.  

On Feb. 17, 2010, thousands of gallons of waste that had been deposited into these wells gurgled to the surface in what the Railroad Commission described as a “breakout.” Materials injected far below the earth had managed to migrate back up to the surface, perhaps through an old well missed by regulators.  

As of this June, investigators were still analyzing whether the chemicals injected underneath the site had reached water supplies.

Jesse Nankin contributed research for this report.

“Inject pollutants into the ‘Earth’”... What a nice, sacred, reverent way to reference our planet. Except the story isn’t about injecting pollutants into the planet - which includes the atmosphere, the waters, the ground, the surface and the planetary core. It’s about injecting pollutants into the ground. Use of the term “earth” in this context appears to be an effort to appeal to spiritual or cultural rather than scientific or rational values. Bad journalist. How about just telling the news and let us decide which belief system we want to embrace, sans politics?

Either way-  the practice is insane.

LOVE CANAL ring a bell?

Replacing natural ingredients back into the earth is a very efficient disposal technique. When you discover individuals or businesses cheating simply shut them down and jail the culprits. You certainly do
not need more millions of dollars or regulations - enforce the current
rules and move on!!

G. V. Foreman

Sep. 20, 2012, 1:28 p.m.

The best this research could produce is an accident that occurred almost ten years ago—10 years ago!!!  My god, one could consider such to be pull at straws.  The rest of the article is simply fear and hyperboly.  Something I’ve taken to describing as “Chicken Little Research”.  Save your print for real problems with credible research.

Regards
Greg

KInd of makes you wonder why Republicans even think they have to dismantle the EPA?

The gas industry has very active PR people! Congrats!

Howard Orenstein

Sep. 20, 2012, 2:33 p.m.

to G.V. Foreman (Greg)—-take a few minutes and google “problems with injection wells.” You’ll see that the ProPublica article is not as you claim,  “simply fear and hyperbole.”

The energy/pollution industries are spending billions on PR and lobbying. One of the things they do is pay bloggers to constantly be alert to stories like this. I don’t need to point out the paid whores with comments above. Facts, science and even common sense can be overruled with enough money. That’s pretty much the history of human civilization.

Who is the looney attempting to redefine ProPublica’s use of the word earth?  It is the earth.  And the earth is part of our spirituality.  Poisoning it and then attempting to defend it can only be done through the destruction of reason and sanity.

I read:

Had the chemicals the workers were disposing of that day come from a factory or a refinery, it would have been illegal to pour them into that well. But regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the last three decades made it legal to dump similar substances into the Rosharon site – as long as they came from drilling.

and thought: 

“Huh…what a loophole.  I wonder if anyone in Big Carbon/Corporate America has thought to use factory or refinery wastes as fracking liquids, thereby making it ‘OK’ to dispose of them via injection wells?  For example, do dangerous toxins from industrial and refinery wasts make up the unidentified 65 tons of ingredients in a typical well like this one in Beaver County, Pennsylvania:  http://www.businessinsider.com/there-are-many-scary-chemicals-in-fracking-fluid-at-this-pennsylvania-site-2012-5 ???”

The thing is if you have a loophole in a regulation that can be manipulated to yield profit, somebody will do precisely that.  Consider, as just one (albeit a trillion dollar) example, Bush and the Republicans’ exploitation of Fannie and Freddie when they launched the mortgage-backed securities pyramid scam:  http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/01/31/1060305/-PROOF-POSITIVE-Republicans-TARGETED-Minorities-to-Buy-Homes

That’s just how some people are…and Big Carbon has no historical record of transparency and sterling ethical practices that would argue that they wouldn’t create long term risk for the public in the pursuit of short term profits.  Quite the contrary.

Mario Salazar

Sep. 20, 2012, 5:15 p.m.

I worked for EPA for 26 years and I am quoted in this article. The practice of underground injection is an elegant way of disposal of wastes if done properly. The theory and the bases for allowing this form of disposal is that if the waste is injected at depth (5,000 feet or more depending on the formation and the occurrence of underground sources of drinking water), it should be a safe practice protective of human health and the environment.
However, when you add lacks of funds and heavy opposition by industry (oil and gas, petrochemical, mining) the system breaks down. Another thing that must be taken into account that is mentioned in the article is that the class of wells that inject the largest volume are regulated by the same agency that regulates and profits from oil and gas production.
60% of the world’s potable water is in underground aquifers. Unless something is done, the taxpayer will end up spending billions to treat the water that industry, especially the oil and gas industry, has for the last 100+ polluted and is still polluting. That is after many will get ill from drinking contaminated water.
Do you think there will be a world crisis when we run out of oil? What do you think will happen when we run out of potable water?

We don’t need no regulation
We don’t need no well control
The free market is the answer
Commies! Leave our firms alone
Hey! Commies! Leave our firms alone!
All in all it’s just another trick in our plan
All in all you’re just another fool in our plan

(thanks and apologies to Pink Floyd)

I’m constantly reading that lack of drinking water is going to be the next environmental crises in this country, and here we are putting ourselves at even more risk.  What the hell are we doing?!  Is there a alternate solution for disposing this waste?...or we just have to hope with proper regulation and oversite we’ll be safe.

@Mario Salazar, who said “Do you think there will be a world crisis when we run out of oil? What do you think will happen when we run out of potable water?”

I can’t say that it gives me a warm fuzzy knowing that some of the same individuals and entities that are making money from injecting toxins into the planet for one reason or another are also involved in buying up water rights…not when scarcity makes a product/commodity/resource more valuable.

The reputations and histories of such individuals and entities leaves me with a sense of foreboding when it comes to projecting how they’ll deal with the moral dilemma of “So the more water I destroy making money with oil/gas/waste injection, the more money I’ll make on the water I own - and protect?”

Here we see oil industries fracking the soil with water combined with toxic waste like benzene and so on. I don’t know if it’s really efficient to put hazardous waste during the drilling process but as you revealed it seems to be an efficient way to get rid of chemicals.
Reading this it reminded me a story i read about fluroide waste. I don’t know if it’s a myth or reality but the storyline is the same:
Aluminium industries to get their minerals had to inject loads of fluoride in the purifying process. The fluoride remains were dumped in rivers and so on. After years of pollutions the dumpings were forbidden but the industries bought some scientific researchers to prove the good effects of fluoride on health and particularly on teeth:  lobbying worked. Fluoride waste has now a legal market to be sold on: fluoride waters and fluoride toothpaste.
Is this a myth or a fact?
Sorry for digression (and syntax).

There are currently 144,000 Class II injection wells in the US and the author has been able to document a handful of instances where well integrity was a problem. Sounds like he’s trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Propublica on this issue.

It is wise to draw from more than one source.  Scientific American did a fine article, Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-fracking-wastewater-wells-poisoning-ground-beneath-our-feeth
Even though I thought I knew a lot about this, I was amazed at the number of disposal wells currently used and how many more will be needed to accommodate the vast amounts of water being removed from the water cycle.  We have multiple energy choices but no other options to replace clean water.

It’s nice to see the usual corporate spokes models have contributed the typical PR word smithing here. Deflecting the argument is their trade, and they are experts at it. Those pretty cartoons they like that show the pipe drilling down smoothly into the strata of the earth where everything lines up with the injection fluids neatly flowing into crevices exactly where it was aimed are quite convincing. 

The reality is much messier, especially the part where the toxic fluids return to the surface. Ask the land owners whose water source was destroyed and who are now responsible for any cleanup. Since the EPA has deregulated the process, any monetary relief has become a civil matter, and good luck with all that entails. The local governments had their hands tied beforehand and most likely had little stomach for taking on large corporations in court anyway since cash is flowing into their economically depressed areas.

Apparently Congress expects landowners in these gas-rich but economically depressed areas to take one for the team.

BS7SDEN,
“When you discover individuals or businesses cheating simply shut them down and jail the culprits. You certainly do
not need more millions of dollars or regulations - enforce the current
rules and move on!!”

Really…thats why over 40 miners were killed in WVa at a Macey mine with over 100 red tags…they faught each citation tooth & nail…to court in some instances.
You also forget that Bush appointed industry people to run these agencies. Kinda like the fox guarding the hen house!

Fox, hen house and fracking (plus climate change)

It is not the number of wells or chemicals dumped. Focus should be on the earth that moves, movement induced from fracking. Numerous aging wells are slowly rusting, rotting and degrading. Any of these events can ruin the integrity of disposal wells.

So while we are still drinking water (laced with antibiotics and drug metabolites from farm, more specifically CAFO run off), no one really knows what may happen in the future.

Can easily turn a short term remedy into a long term nightmare for generations to come.

State Houses and Congress should be sent their drinking water from these sites.  The best message that can be sent to the corrupt politicians.

Next, send it to the idiots who vote for them.  If you don’t KNOW what’s going on, don’t vote, but keep on drinking.

And then to the industry CEOs.  Spare the trial costs and prison beds.

Oops.  I fergot the regulators who take pay-offs or think there’s no-one doing anything wrong.  They need to drink too.

If you are interested in in-depth reporting on this, check the above posted Sci Am article, starts out like this:

No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

There are growing signs they were mistaken.

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.

Mr. Salazar, why not have the federal inspectors train locals as Water SCOUTS??  START with the local fire department, who are volunteers…most of US CARE about what happens to our water supply, and when the regulators overlook that group of concerned citizens the industries run circles around the inspectors…in every sector.  We will be discussing the Water Scouts on Facebook.

@Mike H.  If all the violations for injection wells were to be listed in this forum you would not have time to read them all, pal!!  And I’m talking about only the ones we are aware of. To this point, many people have not routinely tested or checked their private water supplies for the crap they are injecting. The hope is, to make more people aware of the risks that their water may be affecting their health negatively if they live in or near one of the aforementioned areas.  Actually, you should test your water no matter where you live because this crap plumes out for miles underground acording to one U. of Cornell Prof…....

Yea buddy, it’s all good as long as my water is not affected!! (Nice attitude)!!!

Malcolm Kantzler

Sep. 23, 2012, 2:09 p.m.

One bad well, improperly drilled, filled, regulated, surveyed, or inspected or not, for whatever reasons, criminal, or incompetence, or oversight, that poisons one person, one child, little boy or girl, stunting their growth or harming their physical or mental development or capacities in life, or infecting them or anyone with a cancer or other contaminate deformity, just one is one too many, and just one is not worth any amount of profit to the companies or savings to consumers.

Period.

RCab, to be fair, historically, appointees are always the fox guarding the henhouse.  It’s not necessarily malicious, so much, as an assumption by politicians that the people who best understand the issues (publishing, food, energy, money, drugs, whatever) are the people whose livelihoods have relied on it.

I disagree with the policy for the same reasons you do, but it’s an understandable error that’s not necessarily evil or partisan.  For example, I’d be no more comfortable having a Greenpeace chair presiding over these things.

Jon, I very nearly said the same thing about fluoride.  Whether or not the dental research is correct (and it appears to be an anomoly more than anything, but I’ve never done a real survey of the literature), the history is that it’s a waste product of production that companies convinced towns to buy from them.

And something else for everybody to keep in mind, especially as the industry shifts to hunting more for natural gas deposits:  Natural gas is mostly methane.  Ask your favorite third-grader if he can find a source of methane that’s cheaper to access than drilling through aquifers.  When you’re done pulling his finger for the answer, you can figure out how to make that industrial.  (Wood gas is also a possibility, used during German and South African embargoes.)

All things considered, it’s probably cheaper to obsolete these companies than it is to fight them.  It’s probably also better for the economy.  Last I heard, municipal Internet service generally boosted tax revenue by ten percent (by boosting earnings).  What could municipal energy do for that guy down the road who wants to open up a small manufacturing firm?

@john ok, so is it acknowledged that fluoride is toxic for health? Why do u drink it? cause it is as outrageous as the story of shale gas.

if you’re talking about making gas production from “methanisation” of cowpat well here in france it’s illegal. Cause u don’t pay petroleum and gas tax on it. I guess it’s the same in US. But it’s political so we have our to say on that.

Jon, I don’t think any danger from fluroide has been proven to any extent, but I seem to remember that studies outside of children of a narrow age (5-6, maybe) turn out to not show any benefit to teeth, and wasn’t a huge benefit even in the range.

My comment was more the analogy of, “we could pay someone to haul it away, or we can convince some sucker to buy it with taxpayer money,” which we’re seeing here.

As for drinking it, I don’t.  My county’s water facility doesn’t fluoridate the water and issues warnings when tests turn any up in case anybody’s stomach is sensitive to it.

You’re probably right on the organic methane, but that’s a temporary issue and (when you start with organic waste) is probably a health issue, in addition to taxation.

My thinking was more industrial, vats fed other waste products (wood chips, for example, or discarded food stocks) with bacteria that produce the methane, a lot like wine or beer is made.  I’d bet that a company approaching the relevant government asking to pay taxes wouldn’t have much trouble…

(For what it’s worth, in the United States, “gasifying wood” is recommended by FEMA in emergencies, because generating methane to burn produces fewer emissions than burning fuel directly.  That means fewer worries about ventilation, if you’re stuck.)

Another approach, closer to wine and beer, that dark grime that arcs near the corners of buildings in cities?  That’s not soot.  That’s a fungus thatt happens to eat soot.  If it produces methane (I don’t know), it might be easy to put together a “mother” for natural gas.

You’re right it’s a good solution. Paul Stamets calls this mycoremediation. It’s really promising. In addition to recycle organic waste some fungi can degrade petroleum waste and also plastics but it reject CO2 and methane. In our case methane rejection is a benefit.
I read Yale university found a fungus that degrade polyurethane in anaerobic condition.

It could be interesting to calculate how much methane could be generated from the transformation of all the animals rejects -including humans rejects why not- and others organic waste of USA. The ratio between the methane produced and the “needs” of the population would be significative .
i bet it is already done somewhere.

Magico Mysterioso

Sep. 25, 2012, 9:54 a.m.

Face It: This country’s always stood on one leg. Energy production may fuel its wealth, but it’s obvious it’s a dead end. To choose between clean water and heat means the country is reaching a bottleneck in future prosperity and guarantees a cancer explosion and compromised food resources.

...To choose between clean water and heat…

This age of pollution gets even worse:
Take a gander at recent (this week) New York Times article of absolutely wasteful electricity use to keep “cloud computing” alive: massive server rooms that are underutilized, with banks of batteries and back-up diesel generators. All behind closed doors in extremely air conditioned spaces (too much heat). Estimates countrywide are these are drawing as much electricity as 20 nuclear power plants could produce!!
Who is paying for this monstrosity?

lollll…but shore bird - “cloud computing” promises to permit Corporate America to eliminate all personal and business privacy while monetizing all personal and business data!  And, of course, increase their control…it is a lot easier to manipulate those whom you know intimately.

Who could argue with benefits like that?

Steve, You are referring to benefits like increased childhood asthma and lung diseases from burning coal for electricity, with extra bonuses of soil, food pollution with 40 plus years of mercury contaminating fish?
Add to that, waste water seepage from CAFO retention ponds and from leaking well heads that no one has time to inspect?
Nevermind fracking companies not turning a profit, in their haste to dig wells across the landscape, costs of extracting N gas from ground are greater than the offered price, making this proposition a loss leader. (US govt dumped millions if not billions into subsidizing this extraction technology.)
Definitely upside down land: common sense thrown out the window for corporate profits (and govt handouts to corporations).
Sounds more like korporate fascism, with individual tax payers wearing targets on their backs.

There indeed are a truly an amazing number of efforts underway that benefit 0.01% or less of the population - but only in terms of dollar bills, and only while promising short- and long-term harm to the health, well-being, and and/liberty of 100% of the population.

I fail to see how someone who accumulates significant amounts of paper wealth at the cost of the health, well-being, and/or liberty of either themselves or their descendents - for the bill always comes due, and there are many…too many…things that no amount of wealth can shield you from - can consider themselves to be “smart”.

“Focused”, perhaps…but only in a narrow-minded sense.

Integrity, Mike H. Integrity! Our show piece fracking site in Northern British Columbia, that uses three (3) times as much fresh water as anywhere in the world (a gazillion gallons), has suffered forty (40) seismic events in the last 3 years.

It maybe too late for Texas already. The extra fracked oil I can understand (bearly). The cheap Natural Gas is a loser for everyone. Wake up!

Chemical injection pumps

Sep. 28, 2012, 4:35 a.m.

Thank you
The information you shared is very informative.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Injection Wells

Injection Wells: The Hidden Risks of Pumping Waste Underground

Injection wells used to dispose of the nation’s most toxic waste are showing increasing signs of stress as regulatory oversight falls short and scientific assumptions prove flawed.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional

Our Hottest Stories

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •