The US Government Accountability Office says environmental regulators are failing to adequately enforce rules for wells used to dispose of toxic waste from drilling
Federal environment officials have failed to adequately oversee hundreds of thousands of wells used to inject toxic oil and gas drilling waste deep underground, according to a new congressional report.
The report, released Monday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, is critical of the Environmental Protection Agency's inconsistent handling of safety inspections, poor record keeping, and failure to adjust its guidelines to adapt to new risks brought by the recent boom in domestic drilling, including the understanding that injection wells are causing earthquakes.
The EPA generally agreed with the GAO's findings and characterization of the challenges the agency is currently facing.
Concerns have mounted recently about potential water contamination from injections wells. California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review of more than 100 others, out of fears that fracking fluids and other toxic waste are reaching drinking water aquifers there. Earthquakes from Ohio to Oklahoma to Texas have also been blamed on injection wells governed by the EPA's program.
The GAO's findings echo those in a 2012 ProPublica investigation which found that the nation's injection wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, likely leading to pollution of underground water supplies. ProPublica's investigation found that the EPA did not know exactly how many wells existed in the United States or what volume of waste was being injected into them, and that it did not possess complete records required to be collected under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Oversight of injection wells is currently delegated by the EPA to a number of state agencies. Part of the problem, the GAO found, is that the EPA has not consistently inspected those state programs to ensure that state regulators comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and EPA guidelines. The EPA also has failed to incorporate requirements it has placed on some of its state programs into federal regulations, making it difficult for the agency to take legal action against violators.
The EPA oversees more than 700,000 injection wells of various types in the United States, including about 172,000 that pump waste or other materials from the oil and gas industry underground. These wastes, often euphemistically referred to as "saltwater," commonly contain a mixture of water, hazardous chemicals and radioactive minerals. This subset of wells, called Class 2 wells, were the focus of the GAO report.
When waste material is injected thousands of feet underground, rock formations are supposed to prevent it from migrating into nearby drinking water sources. But this is not an exact science and regulators have been finding that fracturing natural rock formations and injecting liquids into them at high pressures can have real and troubling consequences. ProPublica's investigation found numerous instances in which waste had strayed from its target underground or spurted back to the surface, sometimes in residential areas.
Scientists interviewed by ProPublica said the wells were often located adjacent to fault lines which break the seal of rock layers, or old oil wells which also allow a pathway for contaminants to spread. The class 2 waste wells in question are not subject to the same rigorous geologic study, safety reviews, and regular monitoring that the EPA requires of other toxic waste injection wells from other industries, making it difficult for the EPA to enforce protections of underground drinking water supplies, ProPublica found.
According to the new GAO report, the EPA and state programs are also being hindered by budget constraints. Between 2003 and 2012, funding for state injection well programs stagnated at about $10 million a year, which — factoring in inflation — effectively meant resources had declined, the GAO concluded.
The report also blamed the EPA for not taking steps to collect complete, consistent and reliable data on injection wells to use for reporting at a national level, mirroring some of ProPublica's key findings.
"Unless EPA takes these steps, it will be several years before EPA can provide updated information at a national level to Congress, the public, and others on the [injection well] program, preventing them from understanding the program and the protection being provided to underground sources of drinking water at an important juncture in the development of oil and gas in the country," the GAO warned.
Senior reporter Abrahm Lustgarten contributed to this report.
Hectic building and quarrying, illegally or by illegal permission, has resulted in the catastrophe at Malin, which may not be the last one
The killer wet landslide at Malin, which has literally flattened the once-alive village in a few minutes, on Thursday morning, continues to have at least 200 persons trapped under it, with bleak hope of survival. The village, about 110kms from Pune and tucked in the fragile ecological Bhima Shankar area and ensconced in the valley of the Sahyadri Hills, has been the victim of callousness of netas and babus.
The Pune administration continues to look the other way, despite experts and activists pointing out to hectic construction activity in the form of farm houses, roads, hotels, quarrying and other such activities, detrimental to environment. The Google imagery of this village (shown in this article) clearly shows digging/construction activity on the hill slopes under which lies Malin. Being only a few kilometres away from Bhima Shankar, renowned as one of the 12 important Jyotirlinga pilgrimages, road construction and hotel tourism activity is in full boom here, thus facilitating seepage of water into the bosom of the hills, and making the soil soft, that gradually leads to such a disaster.
More importantly, the village Malin has been spelt in bold letters in the list of those villages which are ecologically fragile and are needed to be urgently preserved and have no human interference as per a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment & Forests in 2013 under list of State-wise, District-wise and Taluk-wise villages in ESA (Ecologically Sensitive Area). It has been identified by the HL WG (High Level committee of Western Ghats) at Annexure - A (copy of the notification here).
The notification states: “And whereas, because of unprecedented threats to natural landscape of Western Ghats region by development projects and urban growth, the Working Group has recommended a non-tolerance policy with respect to highly interventionist and environmentally damaging activities like mining or polluting industries. HL WG has highlighted the need for urgent action for protection of biologically rich, diverse and natural landscape of Western Ghats;’’. The notification has ordered immediate halting of activity of mining, quarrying and sand mining; Thermal Power Plants ; building and construction projects of 20,000 sq. m. area and; township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and/or with built up area of 1,50,000 sq.m. and above. Malin along with a list of villages falls into this category. (see list in the notification order).
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar is one of the several crusaders who have been questioning the Pune district administration on the senseless digging and construction on the hills and hill slopes in and around Pune. In a letter to the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2011, Kumbhar had lamented that the Pune district collector is keeping information on illegal/ legal activity on hills and hill slopes a secret and not providing information under Section 4 of the RTI Act. He had pointed out that, “The vast number of illegal quarrying and excavation is going on in and around Pune, on large number of hills, mountains; and lands are being excavated without any necessary permission…In Wagholi near Pune around 10 to 12 kilometres area is being excavated for quarrying. Each quarry depth is around more than 100 metres. These quarries are visible from satellite also. Most of these quarries are running illegally.
“In Ghotawade near Paud, the Sahyadri hill is being excavated. Sahyadri hill (Malin is in the foot of the Sahyadri hill, my addition) is the pride of India and is also a heritage site. Sahyadri belongs to history of Maharashtra and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj…Katraj hill in Pune has already been destroyed.” While some information was provided, all of it is still not updated on the website.
In 2013, citizens were shocked when a young mother and her infant daughter, sitting in the car, were suddenly washed away by sudden floods at the Katraj ghat and died. The reason was a series of illegal constructions on top of the ghat. At that time, Kumbhar had demanded the revamping of eight anti-encroachment squads to halt illegal construction on hill tops and hill slopes all over Pune district. Such squads, 12 in number which were set up by Pune collectorate in 2011, after Kumbhar’s complaint, were withdrawn pointing out to lack of human resources. Although two lives were washed away, nothing has been done to book the culprits that are creating havoc with environment and lives of people.
The Maharashtra government has suddenly become active, as leaders of various political parties, including those from the centre, have been visiting Malin. However, this is just an attempt to be in the limelight, if one goes by the fact that the comprehensive Western Ecology Report by Madhav Gadgil is being pushed under the carpet. The Report has come out hard on hill cutting in the fragile Western Ghats, but it has been denounced by the government. Here is the Moneylife article written after the earlier government refused to make the Western Ecology Report public.
The scary part is that Malin may be just one in the several tragedies that can potentially happen in the near future. Hope political leaders and bureaucrats who are visiting the Malin site, understand that the root cause of giving illegal permissions needs to be totally curbed and culprits allegedly responsible for this tragedy, be prosecuted.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)