Fracking waste injection well (photo: Flickr-kqedquest)
It has been known for months that thousands of oil industry wells in California are injecting toxic waste water into otherwise drinkable water. But four years into a drought, the state now frowns upon that sort of behavior, or at least the appearance of that sort of behavior.
Last week, the state acted, setting a deadline six months down the road to begin closing some of the 2,500 wells known to be pumping wastewater into the ground near aquifers protected by the federal government. The wells were identified after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told state regulators last year that unpermitted drillers, and drillers with permits they shouldn’t have been given by the state, were plentiful.
The EPA ordered the state to finally survey its 50,000 injection wells, which get rid of the liquid detritus from oil drilling. Drilling produces eight times more waste water than extracted oil. The agency has been banging on state regulators at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) for years to bring its wells into compliance with federal rules.
The new rules will be applied to drillers who received permission from the state to pump waste into aquifers that had not received an “aquifer exemption” from the EPA. In other words, they hadn’t dumped into one of the aquifers previously deemed unsuitable for humans.
The state has already closed 23 of the most egregious wells and regulators admit they handed out 500 permits they shouldn’t have. But they are loath to close the 2,500 with improper or nonexistent permits. The Center for Biological Diversity read through the new regulations and concluded that oil companies would be allowed to dump their waste in good aquifers for at least two years.
“This outrageous plan could permanently destroy scores of California aquifers,” Center staff attorney Hollin Kretzmann said in a statement. “We’re suffering the worst drought in history, but Gov. Brown’s oil officials want to let oil companies continue violating the law by dumping vast amounts of toxic waste into our precious underground water.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a release the plan creates “a path to potentially exempt these aquifers from environmental laws designed to protect them, making the wells technically compliant with state and federal regulations but not necessarily protecting the drinking water in those aquifers.”
NRDC staff scientist Briana Mordick said, “The plan to ‘fix’ this problem is not to stop it, but rather to give the oil industry official permission to keep doing it—by declaring this drinking water ‘exempt’ from the environmental laws designed to protect it. DOGGR is right to acknowledge this problem, but today’s announcement is not the solution.”
Mordick suggested that the wells be immediately shut down and remain closed until a full review is complete.
That probably won’t happen, but her heartfelt plea has been heard.
“We understand public concern about their water,” State Oil and Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen said in a press release (pdf) from the Conservation Department. Interested parties wishing to express their concern about the poisoning of aquifers and the plan have five calendar days from its issuance to chime in at email@example.com.