Journalism in the Public Interest

Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation’s Underground Water Supply

Even as water grows more precious, the Environmental Protection Agency has permitted oil and gas, mining and other industries to contaminate aquifers in more than 1,500 places, many of them in Western states stricken by drought.

A view of the dry bed of the E.V. Spence Reservoir in Robert Lee, Texas, in October 2011. Records show that environmental officials have granted more than 50 aquifer exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining in the drought-stricken state. (Calle Richmond/Reuters)

Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.

In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.

EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.

"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."

As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted.

We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect.

What records the agency was able to supply under the Freedom of Information Act show that exemptions are often issued in apparent conflict with the EPA's mandate to protect waters that may be used for drinking.

Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.

Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.

In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company's application.

The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined.

"Aquifer Exemptions identify those waters that do not currently serve as a source of drinking water and will not serve as a source of drinking water in the future and, thus, do not need to be protected," an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email statement. "The process of exempting aquifers includes steps that minimize the possibility that future drinking water supplies are endangered."

Yet EPA officials say the agency has quietly assembled an unofficial internal task force to re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies. The agency's spokesperson declined to give details on the group's work, but insiders say it is attempting to inventory exemptions and to determine whether aquifers should go unprotected in the future, with the value of water rising along with demand for exemptions closer to areas where people live.

Advances in geological sciences have deepened regulators' concerns about exemptions, challenging the notion that waste injected underground will stay inside the tightly drawn boundaries of the exempted areas.

"What they don't often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will," said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it's difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property."

Aquifer exemptions are a little-known aspect of the government's Underground Injection Control program, which is designed to protect water supplies from the underground disposal of waste.

The Safe Drinking Water Act explicitly prohibits injection into a source of drinking water, and requires precautions to ensure that oil and gas and disposal wells that run through them are carefully engineered not to leak.

Areas covered by exemptions are stripped of some of these protections, however. Waste can be discarded into them freely, and wells that run through them need not meet all standards used to prevent pollution. In many cases, no water monitoring or long-term study is required.

The recent surge in domestic drilling and rush for uranium has brought a spike in exemption applications, as well as political pressure not to block or delay them, EPA officials told ProPublica.

"The energy policy in the U.S is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium," said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The political pressure is huge not to slow that down."

Many of the exemption permits, records show, have been issued in regions where water is needed most and where intense political debates are underway to decide how to fairly allocate limited water resources.

In drought-stricken Texas, communities are looking to treat brackish aquifers beneath the surface because they have run out of better options and several cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are considering whether to build new desalinization plants for as much as $100 million apiece.

And yet environmental officials have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining in Texas, records show. The most recent was issued in September.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas drilling, said it issued additional exemptions, covering large swaths of aquifers underlying the state, when it brought its rules into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982. This was in large part because officials viewed them as oil reservoirs and thought they were already contaminated. But it is unclear where, and how extensive, those exemptions are.

EPA "Region VI received a road map — yes, the kind they used to give free at gas stations — with the aquifers delineated, with no detail on depth," said Mario Salazar, a former EPA project engineer who worked with the underground injection program for 25 years and oversaw the approval of Texas' program, in an email.

In California, where nearly half of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown with water from as far away as the Colorado River, the perennially cash-strapped state's governor is proposing to spend $14 billion to divert more of the Sacramento River from the north to the south. Near Bakersfield, a private project is underway to build a water bank, essentially an artificial aquifer.

Still, more than 100 exemptions for natural aquifers have been granted in California, some to dispose of drilling and fracking waste in the state's driest parts. Though most date back to the 1980s, the most recent exemption was approved in 2009 in Kern County, an agricultural heartland that is the epicenter of some of the state's most volatile rivalries over water.

The balance is even more delicate in Colorado. Growth in the Denver metro area has been stubbornly restrained not by available land, but by the limits of aquifers that have been drawn down by as much as 300 vertical feet. Much of Eastern Colorado's water has long been piped underneath the Continental Divide and, until recently, the region was mulling a $3 billion plan to build a pipeline to bring water hundreds of miles from western Wyoming.

Along with Wyoming, Montana and Utah, however, Colorado has sacrificed more of its aquifer resources than any other part of the country.

More than 1,100 aquifer exemptions have been approved by the EPA's Rocky Mountain regional office, according to a list the agency provided to ProPublica. Many of them are relatively shallow and some are in the same geologic formations containing aquifers relied on by Denver metro residents, though the boundaries are several hundred miles away. More than a dozen exemptions are in waters that might not even need to be treated in order to drink.

"It's short-sighted," said Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, an international non-governmental drinking water organization. "It's something that future generations may question."

To the resource industries, aquifer exemptions are essential. Oil and gas drilling waste has to go somewhere and in certain parts of the country, there are few alternatives to injecting it into porous rock that also contains water, drilling companies say. In many places, the same layers of rock that contain oil or gas also contain water, and that water is likely to already contain pollutants such as benzene from the natural hydrocarbons within it.

Similarly, the uranium mining industry works by prompting chemical reactions that separate out minerals within the aquifers themselves; the mining can't happen without the pollution.

When regulations governing waste injection were written in the 1980s to protect underground water reserves, industry sought the exemptions as a compromise. The intent was to acknowledge that many deep waters might not be worth protecting even though they technically met the definition of drinking water.

"The concept of aquifer exemptions was something that we 'invented' to address comments when the regulations were first proposed," Salazar, the former EPA official, said. "There was never the intention to exempt aquifers just because they could contain, or would obviate, the development of a resource. Water was the resource that would be protected above all."

Since then, however, approving exemptions has become the norm. In an email, the EPA said that some exemption applications had been denied, but provided no details about how many or which ones. State regulators in Texas and Wyoming could not recall a single application that had been turned down and industry representatives said they had come to expect swift approval.

"Historically they have been fairly routinely granting aquifer exemptions," said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently seeking permits for new mining in South Dakota. "There has never been a case that I'm aware of that it has not been done."

Aquifer Exemptions Granted

The aquifer exemptions approved by the EPA each year are according to a partial list of approvals provided to ProPublica by the agency in response to a FOIA request.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

In 1981, shortly after the first exemption rules were set, the EPA lowered the bar for exemptions as part of settling a lawsuit filed by the American Petroleum Institute. Since then, the agency has issued permits for water not "reasonably expected" to be used for drinking. The original language allowed exemptions only for water that could never be used.

Oil companies have been the biggest users of aquifer exemptions by far. Most are held by smaller, independent companies, but Chevron, America's second-largest oil company, holds at least 28 aquifer exemptions. Exxon holds at least 14. In Wyoming, the Canadian oil giant EnCana, currently embroiled in an investigation of water contamination related to fracking in the town of Pavillion, has been allowed to inject into aquifers at 38 sites.

Once an exemption is issued, it's all but permanent; none have ever been reversed. Permits dictate how much material companies can inject and where, but impose little or no obligations to protect the surrounding water if it has been exempted. The EPA and state environmental agencies require applicants to assess the quality of reservoirs and to do some basic modeling to show where contaminants should end up. But in most cases there is no obligation, for example, to track what has been put into the earth or — except in the case of the uranium mines — to monitor where it does end up.

The biggest problem now, experts say, is that the EPA's criteria for evaluating applications are outdated. The rules — last revised nearly three decades ago — haven't adapted to improving water treatment technology and don't reflect the changing value and scarcity of fresh water.

Aquifers once considered unusable can now be processed for drinking water at a reasonable price.

The law defines an underground source of drinking water as any water that has less than 10,000 parts per million of what are called Total Dissolved Solids, a standard measure of water quality, but historically, water with more than 3,000 TDS has been dismissed as too poor for drinking. It also has been taken for granted that, in most places, the deeper the aquifer — say, below about 2,000 feet — the higher the TDS and the less salvageable the water.

Yet today, Texas towns are treating water that has as high as 4,000 TDS and a Wyoming town is pumping from 8,500 feet deep, thousands of feet below aquifers that the EPA has determined were too far underground to ever produce useable water.

"You can just about treat anything nowadays," said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, which advises the state on groundwater management. Arroyo said he was unaware that so many Texas aquifers had been exempted, and that it would be feasible to treat many of them. Regarding the exemptions, he said, "With the advent of technology to treat some of this water, I think this is a prudent time to reconsider whether we allow them."

Now, as commercial crops wilt in the dry heat and winds rip the dust loose from American prairies, questions are mounting about whether the EPA should continue to grant exemptions going forward.

"Unless someone can build a clear case that this water cannot be used — we need to keep our groundwater clean," said Al Armendariz, a former regional administrator for the EPA's South Central region who now works with the Sierra Club. "We shouldn't be exempting aquifers unless we have no other choice. We should only exempt the aquifer if we are sure we are never going to use the water again."

Still, skeptics say fewer exemptions are unlikely, despite rising concern about them within the EPA, as the demand for space underground continues to grow. Long-term plans to slow climate change and clean up coal by sequestering carbon dioxide underground, for example, could further endanger aquifers, causing chemical reactions that lead to water contamination.

"Everyone wants clean water and everyone wants clean energy," said Richard Healy, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey whose work is focused on the nexus of energy production and water. "Energy development can occur very quickly because there is a lot of money involved. Environmental studies take longer."

I would think Texans would be elated that the EPA is letting business do its job.  Plus the state of Texas can regulate within its borders so what another plus for the citizens of Texas.

As they say “Don’t Mess With Texas”.

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Louisette Lanteigne

Dec. 11, 2012, 11:39 a.m.

In Waterloo Region in Ontario, we’re seeing major aquifer issues too as quarry pits and development threaten to ruin our aquifers. We are dealing with a 30 year old planning scheme to exploit the Waterloo Moraine for aggregates to build a big city while replacing the water with a pipeline to Erie. Details here;
Problems: No manditory test times or methods for engineering firms who do the Environmental Impact Studies. They sign off and assume no risks and that data is the baseline for conservation authorities. They also sponsor conservation authorities who review their work for approvals during planning. It’s a bias. Engineers stand to profit for when the water goes bad. Cities can’t afford to defend against them, sewer work schemes are subject to corrupt over pricing etc. The Ministry of Natural Resources acts as promoter/regulator/enforcement of aggregates. Again the bias. The system is a mess and our water, agriculture and economy is all at risk. We need laws to protect primary recharge. We need real rules to assure work of Engineering firms and to hold them accountable should wells go bad. Hold them liable.

Gerrit van Tonder

Dec. 11, 2012, 11:44 a.m.

I do not understand that the EPA allows that toxic waste be dumped deep into aquifers via wells. One characteristic of a geological basin is that what you put into it, will eventually again reach the surface, given enough time.

Dave mcfatridge

Dec. 11, 2012, 12:03 p.m.

Texas the largest polluter in the United States is creating a new industry. Water filtration, if you can afford it, you too can drink clean water ! I can see it now, when you go fill up the car bring along your water buffalo.

John F. Butterfield

Dec. 11, 2012, 3:01 p.m.

Rain water could be collected and diverted to recharge aquifers. This could improve the quality of water in aquifers and store more water that could be used for drinking later and at the same time lower sea levels. In addition, there would be less water evaporating into the air to fuel super storms. The main impetus would be the storing of water that can be purified to drink, but if corporations are allowed to piss things into aquifers that contaminate the water, what’s the use.

This should be considered a crime against humanity.

A very real and frightening reality in a country capable of water privatization. But, thanks to the work of people like Abrahm and journalists covering waste disposal from fracking, the public is beginning to turn out in numbers and question waste injection wells.

Last night in north central PA, the EPA held a public hearing for a waste injection well permit in Brady township which brought in about 12 local officials and over 100 people from the public (considered the largest turnout for this type of hearing on fracking related issues by organizations in attendance). All who testified were in opposition to the injection well, but some who had simple questions like, “what PSI will be used for this well?” left without specific answers.

This injection well permit would be located near the Allegheny & Susquehanna River sections of Triple Divide’s watersheds, — responsible for supplying drinking water to millions of americans from surface intakes.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 11, 2012, 4:41 p.m.

Kudos to Abrahm for a well-balanced and researched article.
The program at EPA that regulates underground injection is one of the smallest, both in funding and personnel. There is no incentive to increase it since it regulates some of the largest corporations in the US. I estimate that less than 200 feds are involved in oversight of the Underground Injection Program (UIC) nationwide. There are probably another 500 state workers that work in UIC in states that have been delegated the program by EPA. So you have less than 1,000 people trying to regulate, manage and do oversight on a universe of hundreds of thousands of wells.
In the early first decade of this century I tried to get a handle of aquifer exemptions in the country. We made significant progress, but when I retired from EPA the effort was stopped. I speculate that low resources, low interest and significant pressure from the states and affected corporations influenced the decision to stop the effort to get an inventory of aquifer exemptions.
Some interesting statistics in the US: almost 100% of liquid hazardous waste is injected, 90% of the Uranium is produced by using underground injection, over 300 million gallons of brine from oil and gas production are injected every month, no one knows how many improperly abandoned injection wells exist. Some have speculated that there are up to a million of these.

vera scroggins

Dec. 11, 2012, 5:02 p.m.

this is criminal behavior by our EPA and other parts of our government to even consider endangering our water and aquifers for the sake of mining of any kind; no more exemptions to polluting industries and lawsuits need to be placed on our regulatory agencies for failure to protect our water and populace.

Hey Paul, you are polluting T-Boone’s water.Question if you recycle the waste water into a new frack doesn’t that super concentrate what’s left on the surface in the pond?

When the regulative agencies are being funded by those they are charged with regulating there is always going to be lax enforcement of the rules and subjective permitting standards. You can’ t expect a man to understand when his job depends on his NOT UNDERSTANDING. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

If you ever expect to remedy the situation you MUST take on the
“SELF REPORTING” allowed the polluters, and the backroom
“CONSENT DECREES”  that facilitate them.

  There are currently, NO open court litigations with full public exposure of Corporate infractions, or the regulators complicity in disguising it in double speak, to conceal their own malfeasance, and lack of due diligence.

It is all behind closed doors, decided by judges with vested interests in the outcome and no censure for THEIR actions.
  ALL litigious action should be in open court with EPA, DEQ,  and RCRA defending THEIR actions, or lack thereof , on trial,  along with the offender.

Go after the politicans who continually support the hidden dealmaking. Flood them with demands for change, keep THEIR names linked with the issues, in the media.

Force them to change the SELF REPORTING and CONSENT DECREE laws and enforce them….... at all levels.  Hold the Judges accountable for their decisions.  ALL litigation open to public view.

Without these changes there will NEVER be a remedy.

It’s always funny to me when people who love to rant and rail at ‘radical environmentalists’ become radical environmentalists as soon as the pollution shows up in their own backyard.

Problem is, by then it’s too late.

Oh well, humans were never meant to be a permanent species.

Excellent story but Not of any suprise. Does EPA require McDonalds to recycle all the trash they create? Do we require the largest manufacturers of; air conditioners, Refrigerators, or Dehumidifiers to charge a small fee (like tires and Car batteries) to accept the old unit and recycle them. The EPA is a puppet organization for corporate America. If you want to build a home and there is 5 sq ft area of wetlands they will stop you from building! Beyond that .. they are dysfunctional.

I agree that freshwater aquifers and aquifers that are potential treatable for drinking water should also be protected.  This is the intent of the UIC program - without exemptions.  This same standard should apply to gas and oil well development not just injection.  Therefore, we would be protecting water that is freshwater and probably water that is only 1% contaminated.  Water 1% contaminated has a TDS of approximately 10,000 mg/L.

Big Oil is creating a wasteland but as long as they profit——that seems to be the only thing that matters to them.
I foresee a world where we will have to pay far more for water than we pay for gas——and once again big oil will be laughing all the way to the bank because we will all have to pay them just to drink a glass of water.

Environment and atmosphere is the part and parcel of the world.But at present it polluted by many ways.So to protect proper many steps for saving human beings.

Not only mining and energy companies in western states are getting these kind of outrageous regulatory exemptions.

Here in NJ, the State DEP regulations allows for a groundwater “Classification Exemption Area” (CEA) - that legally is a zone where the groundwater standards do NOT apply.

Sort of like a “mixing zone” under the EPA NJPDES surface water program.

There are over 6,000 CEA’s issued in NJ - under a CEA, the polluter is not required to cleanup their toxic waste pollution - merely monitor it and let it dilute.

As a result, pollutants are unknowingly migrating widely into drinking water wells and via vapor intrusion into the basements of buildings near sites.


This is what happens when corporations pay to “starve the beast.” Our future is in jeopardy.

If you want anotehr scandal, look at teh SAfe Drinking Water Act’s “Source Water Protection Program”.

Don’t know how other states implemented that program, but it is a total failure in NJ.

However, the vulnerability and susceptibility maps in that program are a superb source of information on threats to drinking water supplies - virtually no public knowledge of this great info!

Another great story waiting for a good invesitgative journalist!

Another fine example of the oil companies running roughshod over everything and everybody.  They leave a trail of pollution and waste and when they are done it is then up to the communities to clean up and pay the costs.  By the way, where is the “protection” in the Enviromental protection agency?  Obviously, no where to be found.  it’s sad to know that these oil companies can do this to our states and communities with no checks on them at all.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 12, 2012, 7:51 p.m.

Federal agencies like EPA are limited by three things:
1. As all other Federal Agencies, EPA is managed by the executive branch. The Administrator as well as all the Assistant Administrators and other key positions are appointed by the president;
2. Laws define where the authority of EPA resides. EPA for example doesn’t have any authority over oil and gas production;
3. Budget is key in setting priorities for the Agency. Again, its management decides where the funds are used, after the expenditures that are specifically defined in the laws and interpreted by its management.
So, it is not all the fault of EPA or its staff. If the American people want stronger or different priorities, they should vote in the people that would do that.

This is great news.  From the country that is spreading depleted uranium overseas, thus killing for hundreds of thousands of years.  So there you go Amerika, what goes around comes around.  Enjoy.

Mr. Salazar, we’d be only too happy to “vote in the people that would [provide] stronger or different priorities” but we aren’t afforded that opportunity very often.  Corruption, like Pac-Man, is gobbling up the country and it’s appetite is voracious.

This is so obviously vastly more dangerous to the public good and on a much larger scale than any so-called terrorists.

When I went on mixed army NATO exrcises in Norway I noticed interesting differences.

The US Forces would bring water processing trucks along; the British would designate ‘clean areas’ in the snow where no one was allowed and the Germans just du whatever snow was to hand and melted it.

Unfortunately, soldiers being lazy, German soldiers often urinated in snow, that was covered up by fresh falls,. Subsequently, snow needed for water was contaminated with urine and caused many to be sick.

I think the moral is: Keep the water clean, don’t rely on technology!

Travis, while you’re not entirely wrong, look at it this way:  When is the last time you contacted your Congressman?  What about your neighbor?  What’s the last town/city council meeting you’ve attended?

There’s a kernel of truth to what Mario’s saying, though I think his conclusion is flawed.

Consider, if you’re not talking to your representatives regularly, who is talking to them?  Not people with your best interests at heart.  And without your voice to counter it, what looks like corruption could just be that lobbyists take them out to fancy dinners while constituents just bitch about how corrupt they are.  Who would you listen to?

Not to say that everybody up and down the chain is necessarily trying to do the right thing.  I’m sure there are miserable people out there, as the Superfund debacle (“Inconclusive by Design,” which someone here recommended a long time ago—apologies for forgetting that person’s name) shows.  But even the people who want to fix it don’t have the ammunition to fight with unless we give it to them.

john, i kno of a situation down in Florida where the propety owners HAVE contacted their county commisioners as well as all sorts of other public officials and yet the pollution is allowed to continue unabated.  if public officials do not respondthen what is the remedy for thae issues of pollution now?  Litigation?  Costly and unaffordable. to most involved So a lot of people have given up and just are hoping that the pollution does not get into their drinking and bathing water Some of these previously unwilling to talk to thoseaffected customers, commisioners were finally booted out of offfice so it is with some hope that the folks there are waiting for the new crop of commisioners to be sworn in and then, perhaps they can make some headway in stopping this pollution against a company with big enough pockets to woo the new commisioners to their point of view.  once again, money may prevail here. and you ask why people aren’t contacting their elected officials?  In most cases they are and have but they don’t have near enoughbig pockets to compete with the corporate companys. and therefore their voices are silenced by big money.  Taking any sort of gift, even a breakfast, is now illegal in most places but the companys are more than willing to risk being caught.  Why?  The reward is more than worth the risk and always will be until councils, commisions, parish’s etc finally find the courage to do the right thing!

Continuing to pursue ever greater quantities of fossil fuels is short sighted.  Allowing the contamination of any water source is short sighted.  To pursue ever greater quantities of energy in ways that pollute any source of water will be the death of us, like the dinosaurs.  In the foreseeable future, water is likely to be more valuable than fossil fuels.  Wonder how we will look back on this debate then?

Mario Salazar

Dec. 13, 2012, 5:52 p.m.

What most people fail to realize is that that the Federal Government staff is not composed of “Public Servants”. They are members of the executive branch and operate as directed by the president and his political appointees. So the work is controlled by the Laws and the will of the appointees. These two factors logically indicate that in order for a specific policy to be implemented it has to be legislated by Congress and implemented by the President and his appointees.
Unfortunately most Americans say they want to protect the environment, but vote to do something else, usually to protect their perception of economic viability in the SHORT TERM.
Believe me there is more than a kernel of truth in what I write.

Mario, Wouldn’t that department be beholdden to the Presiden’t s direction above everything else?  I mean,isn’t it the President who appoints and can fire those who don’t stay in line with what his direction for that department is?  So, in the end, doesn’t the buck stop with the administration that is the one in office at the time?

Mario Salazar

Dec. 13, 2012, 9:40 p.m.

The political appointees serve at the will of the president. If they don’t follow the direction of his/her administration they are gone. As a matter of fact, several EPA administrators that started taking their jobs seriously (protecting human health and the environment) were fired by Republican administrations.
On the other hand, there are also the laws that have to be implemented and more importantly, that limit the authority of the agency/department.
So, an administrator can chose to lag in the implementation of a particular law, but he/she has to walk a fine line since he can be sued or called in front of Congress. However, unless there is specific authority to do something, he/she can’t act. They have to ask Congress for authority before they can act.
Most environmental laws have generic authorities; however, since there is no specific prohibition, the violator has to be taken to court and EPA has to demonstrate why it used the generic authority. Proving cause and effect, especially on ground water pollution cases, is very difficult.
If there is specific authority, as is the case of records submission or tests to be performed, then administrative fines and/or other penalties can be enforced.
So in the case of aquifer exemption data, EPA can demonstrate that they were never given adequate funding to do the job. Since the Agency is not obligated by law to keep records, they would get embarrassed, but they don’t have to act. Of course, to any rational person, one can’t overview a program without having the data that are necessary.

Just a clarification:

Federal workers at such agencies as the EPA, NOAA and the Coast Guard work at the President’s behest - and most are employed there only long enough to secure a position at the very industries that they regulate.

One only has to look at how those particular agencies initially cooperated with the Obama Administration, BP and with each other to prevent media access to the most damaged regions of the Gulf, at how the studies of the size of oil spew and dispersant were laundered, at how the amount of damage and the apparent health effects on the wildlife and the people living along the coast was consistently minimized, and at how the so-called ‘fines’ and ‘settlements’ were lauded to see the evidence of this.

The Gulf Spew is just one example of this. The poisoning of our nation’s water supply is another.

The relationships between these agencies and the corporations they supposedly regulate have always been characterized with good reason as ‘revolving doors’ and those relationships become cozier by the day.

John, - I recommended “INCONCLUSIVE BY DESIGN.” A must read, not only in pollution context, but all regulative agencies are being controlled by the funding from the top. That money comes from the regulatees and their parent companies, buying their autonomy. A couple more books of interest are “The Unseen Hand” by A. Ralph Epperson” & “The Crime And Punishment Of I.G. Farbin” by Joseph Borkin. Farbin is the parent co. of Monsanto, Rockefeller and Farbin have virtual control of the medical and food reg. agencies & realms. I believe both books can be downloaded free on the net.
  Mario,- Polluters aren’t taken to court in the classic sense, everything is behind closed doors and handled in CONSENT DECREES the public is not privy to. Unless you consult the FED REGISTER by # & can understand the doublespeak. I had the audacity to challenge the workings of this machine from 2002-2009 during and after several toxic releases, and was sued by the polluter to silence the documentation. It took 14 months, & 13 attys. from 7 law firms across 5 states to get around a disabled senior citizen, PRO~SE with the facts. In complicity, EPA , Media, & RCRA disapeared &  classified docs. None of this litigation was open to the public. DEQ backed off early on, & immediately after I was muzzled, EPA entered into a CONSENT DECREE absolving ALL actionable offenses on the books, since 1998, giving clean slate status,  & imposed a token fine which was diverted into rapid expansion to increase production. End result, I was held by court order to an unauthorized settlement agreement,WITHOUT SIGNATURE, & NO rules of contract law being met. This is what you call a “NON JUDICIAL PRECEDENT, & will most assuredly be quoted many times over in much bigger arenas than mine. Only cost to company was fighting me. Taxpayers footed the bill. It might behoove you to look up Non Judicial Precedent on the net, see how the laws get changed and manipulated from the BOTTOM UP, not THE TOP DOWN.Refer to my previous post on this article. Dec 11, 5:59PM

My recollection of legal actions when I was at EPA are a little different from yours. Typically an established protocol is followed upon the knowledge of a violation. If there is no movement to compliance or if the violation is grave, EPA would request action by the Justice Department. DOJ has very high standards for them to take up legal action, they don’t like to lose. So in many cases the Agency will not get good news from DOJ. At that time it has to decide what action to take.
In many such cases, almost any agreement looks good.
All these actions are overlaid by the political climate at the time. This influences whether the Agency takes up enforcement, whether it will forward the case to DOJ and whether DOJ will take the case.

Mario, DOJ wouldn’t even acknowledge my contact. Maybe Cheney’s involvement, or the fact that this company is owned by BHP BILLITON, & is the only pipeline source of jet fuel to Ellsworth AFB, or that some of the documents indicated prior knowledge to 911, had an influence. Nontheless, many illegal and unethical actions were employed in the court battles. They had to resort to devious means, but that was to be expected.
  During my 2nd appeal , a Denver newspaper broke a scandal involving EPA, DEQ,& ENERGY officials, sex & drug parties. I’ d be willing to bet that news item was disappeared too. Our front page news item, where positive ANTIMONY tests were arbitrarily thrown out, disappeared , even from State Archives. (It takes very high level influence to achieve that feat)  Cheney made several impromptu visits to Cheyenne & Denver suspiciously coinciding with the disappearances of docs. and preempting further investigations, when initiated.
DEQ was neutered in a court action many yrs. ago, I have the court case but can’t at the moment recall the date. EPA is virtually a spokesman FOR the industry and have no teeth. They have yet to show the will to even get dentures.
When you can accurately refute every claim on permit modeling yet they still get the permit and the regulating official publishes in the paper you’re whack jobs, there is a problem. Protest to permit another 2 tons of SO2 from 1 heater, was met with (Golly gee shucks, “I don’t now what you people are complaining about, it’s only 1/10th of 1% of what they’re already emitting. “)  Such a miniscule increase, buck up, breathe deep, after all you have to die from something, no? One must wonder why is it, the regulators avoid living near the sources they regulate???? 

Wyoming is well known for it’s frontier justice, courts are well pocketed, regulators well oiled, industry well protected. 

Oh, the temerity of challenging the big dogs, in their own yard. At least when they came into my yard, I ran out from under the porch and gnawed on a few legs. .....I can see the humor in it all. Even though they won,  bet they don’t brag in the backrooms how many took, how long, and what they had to resort to in kicking my ba’hind. All that time, money, education, and power to beat down a disabled old woman with a 9th grade education, no money, and PRO~SE.
  Truth isn’t always easy to subvert.

since my response to Mario was censored, to protect identities and actions of the perpetrators,  guess the illusion of regulative protections will have to continue unabated. ...Me’a cul’pa

Mario Salazar

Dec. 16, 2012, 7:41 p.m.

With all due respect, your comment is not based on facts. While there are some federal workers that go to private industry after their stint at EPA or other agencies, this is the exception, not the rule.
Most federal workers stay in the government for a relatively long time. The reason is that the jobs are protected after the first three years, they are relatively well paid and are not stressful. Of the people that I worked for and retired at the same time, NONE went to work for the regulated community. A small portion went to consulting firms.
A federal worker with only 10 years of experience or less is of no use to a company that wants to avoid enforcement. Also, most high level federal workers are prohibited from working for the people they regulated for five years after they leave the federal government.
NOW, Political Appointees are not included in this prohibition. Technically they are not federal workers.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 17, 2012, 9:48 p.m.

From personal experience I know that a casual comment like “The vicepresident is very interested on this.” by a political appointee will make a middle level manager quake in his/her pants.
Read my article “Working for the federal government” under my writting name “21st Century Pacifist”. Just google this to find the article.

The EPA has granted aquifer exemptions for aquifers that will be in-situ mined for uranium under the mineral commercial provision of the code of federal regulation.  The fact that these aquifers contain mine-able concentrations of uranium & very high concentrations of radium 226, far in excess of SDWA maximum contaminant levels (MCL’s), clearly shows that these aquifers are not drinking water quality and should not be used for public (or private) water supplies.  As for oil & gas industry, a lot of the aquifer exemptions are into aquifers that were previously depleted oil & gas production zones & are therefore, very unlikely candidates for public water supplies.  As for the deep injection wells (class I), in the state that I live in, all are extremely deep and far away from any public or private water supplies. This article is extremely misleading.

Your description does include a number of cases; however, it is not addressing what the article says. Also, the cases you mention does not justify all the exemptions that appear to have been granted by the states.
One of the things that is important is that EPA and possibly some states don’t even have a complete data base of the exemptions. How can we know whether all of them where done properly?

As you likely know, there are a very few ways reasons that aquifers that meet the definition of underground sources of drinking water can be exempted.  And these exemptions all go to public notice for comment. So as for your comment that “we” don’t know that the exemptions are done properly, the “we” do have a chance to comment.  I stand by my comment that the article is extremely misleading and poor journalism. 

I would agree that the EPA (and some states) have not done a good job of tracking the aquifer exemptions.  Some kind of nationwide GIS coverage would be great, but as you’re likely aware, things do cost money.  And a lot of federal & state budgets are under significant budget cuts.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 21, 2012, 4:22 p.m.

Technically you are correct; however, since we don’t know what aquifers have been exempted, we don’t know whether the process was followed. Are you sure that all the aquifer exemptions followed the criteria for exemption, public notice and oversight where appropriate?
No one can tell me or you whether the exemptions that were approved as part of the Texas 1425 program were in fact legal under the law. That is because their documentation was a sham.
And, as you say, we should have a complete aquifer exemption data base. Why didn’t EPA follow through after I started this effort prior to retirement?
Having read Abrahm before, I think he shows extreme restraint in this article.

Publius Valerius

Dec. 28, 2012, 2:25 p.m.

It is time to remake the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts inclusive for every industry and mining operation and no exemptions. Congress caves in to every special interest so they can not be counted on to not gut enforcement or not allow exemptions. They do this by tacking these items on legislation that is usually vital. It is time to get an Amendment that gives the President line item veto. That raises the stakes such that congress would need a passage of 2/3 to overcome the veto on a “pork” piece of legislation. Most would fail.

Does anyone know why Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, has left??

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.

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