Safety Rules for Fracking Disposal Wells Often Ignored, The growing number of wells used to dispose of wastewater from fracking are subject to lax oversight

Safety Rules for Fracking Disposal Wells Often Ignored, The growing number of wells used to dispose of wastewater from fracking are subject to lax oversight by Abrahm Lustgarten and ProPublica, September 20, 2012, Scientific American
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 andwater. 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. … 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.

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. 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. … 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.”

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. … 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.

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. … 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.

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.”

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.” … “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.” … 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. [Emphasis added]

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