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EPA must step in after WV's repeated failure to protect drinking water from oil and gas waste

Matthew McFeeley

Posted August 14, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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Today NRDC sent a letter to U.S. EPA calling on them to crack down on the state of West Virginia’s lax oversight of oil and gas and fracking wastewater disposal wells—that is putting drinking water at risk of contamination, and could trigger man-made earthquakes.  The West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, which works to protect landowners from abuses by the oil and gas industry, joined us in sending the letter. 

The oil and gas industry creates an enormous amount of wastewater – more than 2 billion gallons per day.  This wastewater includes the “flowback” that comes up the wellbore after fracking is completed, as well as “produced water” that was trapped in oil and gas formations.  The wastewater is often toxic and can contain chemicals used in fracking and naturally occurring substances, including heavy metals like arsenic and lead, and radioactive materials. 

Over 90% of this wastewater generated by the industry is disposed of by pumping it underground via “injection wells.”  But there is mounting evidence that the underground injection of this waste is risking the safety of drinking water. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal watchdog agency, found that EPA was not doing enough to ensure state oil and gas waste injection programs are not contaminating underground drinking water supplies, risking earthquakes, or causing  “overpressurization,” in which pressures build up to unsafe levels and waste can spill onto the surface.

Over the course of more than a year, we’ve repeatedly asked the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to act to protect water in West Virginia from contamination by underground injection of oil and gas waste.  We’re particularly concerned about a site in Fayette County, where neighbors have complained for years about odors and changes in a local stream. Unfortunately, the state continues to allow clear violations that endanger West Virginians’ drinking water. 

Today, we are asking the U.S. EPA to step in to ensure compliance with federal law and revoke the state’s authority to oversee these wells unless it cleans up its act.

West Virginians are well aware of the potential consequences of neglecting risks to drinking water after the Elk River chemical spill from a coal-related chemical processing company near Charleston this January left more than 300,000 residents unable to use their tap water.  Unfortunately, WVDEP appears more concerned about placating the fossil fuel industry than ensuring the safety of the state’s drinking water sources.  

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, states may take over permitting and oversight of these injection wells if the EPA determines that the state’s program will be effective to prevent the endangerment of drinking water sources.  However, the EPA must step in if states fail to ensure the necessary protections are in place.  In West Virginia, it’s clear that time has come, as state regulators are not enforcing the rules in place aimed at preventing contamination from these wells. 

In our letter, we provide evidence that the state is not enforcing its own rules, including: 1) site security standards to prevent illegal dumping, 2) rules meant to ensure that any spills or leaks from tanks at the sites are contained, and 3) testing requirements to ensure that wells are not leaking into drinking water aquifers.  We specifically highlight one site where NRDC challenged an inadequate permit that the state issued to a company that had a number of previous violations.  While the state revoked the permit a day after our challenge was filed, it continued down the same dangerous path by simultaneously issuing an order allowing the company to continue injecting wastewater into the well indefinitely, despite the fact that this is not allowed under either federal or state law. 

West Virginia is certainly not the only state where problems exist with oil and gas waste disposal wells, as evidenced by the GAO investigations and other reports.  In Ohio, for instance, citizen groups just petitioned EPA in June to shut down a well that they said had been illegally injecting for years.  This cannot be allowed to continue.

It’s time for the EPA to step in and ensure that drinking water nationwide is protected from toxic oil and gas waste.  That means the EPA must take action to prevent endangerment of drinking water sources when a state is not enforcing the law, as in West Virginia. And, if the state still does not comply, EPA should revoke the state’s authority to oversee these wells altogether.

The oil and gas industry should not get special treatment or kid gloves. All Americans deserve to know their drinking water is safe.  

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Comments

Michael BerndtsonAug 14 2014 10:30 AM

Did you cc Jay Rockefeller? The EPA can't do much with coal let alone oil and gas exploration and production at the state level. EPA tried with Pavillion, WY with it's fracking/groundwater issue - and got pretty much driven out of the state. West Virginia would probably do the same.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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