California and EPA Poised to Expand Pollution of Potential Drinking Water Reserves A little-known program under federal environment law is being used to permit oil and gas companies to inject waste into the state’s aquifers, even as the thirst for groundwater grows by Abrahm Lustgarten, August 30, 2016, ProPublica
As the western United States struggles with chronic water shortages and a changing climate, scientists are warning that if vast underground stores of fresh water that California and other states rely on are not carefully conserved, they too may soon run dry.
Heeding this warning, California passed new laws in late 2014 that for the first time require the state to account for its groundwater resources and measure how much water is being used.
Yet California’s natural resources agency, with the oversight and consent of the federal government, also runs a shadow program that allows many of its aquifers to be pumped full of toxic waste.
Now the state — which relied on aquifers for at least 60 percent of its total water supply over the past three years — is taking steps to expand that program, possibly sacrificing portions of dozens more groundwater reserves. In some cases, regulators are considering whether to legalize pollution already taking place at a number of sites, based on arguments that the water that will be lost was too dirty to drink or too difficult to access at an affordable price. Officials also may allow the borders of some pollution areas to be extended, jeopardizing new, previously unspoiled parts of the state’s water supply.
The proposed expansion would affect some of the parts of California hardest hit by drought, from the state’s agriculturally rich central valley to wine country and oil-drilling fields along the Salinas River. Some have questioned the wisdom of such moves in light of the state’s long-term thirst for more water supplies.
“Once [the state] exempts the water, it’s basically polluted forever. It’s a terrible idea,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing California to force it to complete an environmental impact assessment of the proposed aquifer changes. California, she said, is still offering breaks to its oil industry. “We’re at a precipice point where the state is going to have to prioritize water over an industry that isn’t going to last.”
California is one of at least 23 states where so-called aquifer exemptions — exceptions to federal environmental law that allow mining or oil and gas companies to dump waste directly into drinking water reserves — have been issued.
Exemptions are granted by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency division that has had difficulties in recordkeeping and has been criticized for its controversial management of groundwater reserves.
A 2012 ProPublica investigation disclosed that the federal government had given energy and mining companies permission to pollute U.S. aquifers in more than 1,000 locations, as part of an underground disposal program that allows toxic substances to be disposed of in nearly 700,000 waste wells across the country.
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. See our reporting.
In many cases, the exact locations of the exemptions and the precise boundaries of areas where aquifer pollution was allowed had been left poorly defined, raising concerns that waste might reach adjacent drinking water. Several states, including California, have since admitted they’ve allowed that to happen.
As droughts have worsened and aquifers have become more cherished, the implications of aquifer exemptions have become more serious, even as regulators have continued to issue these legal loopholes.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act distinguishes between underground aquifers that are too salty or dirty to ever be used and those that are pure enough to drink from, defining the latter as an “underground source of drinking water.”
Protection of drinking water is required under the law, and any polluting of it through waste disposal, oil and gas production, or mining is a crime.
Companies, however, can file petitions to change how an aquifer is classified, arguing that it either has already been polluted or is too deep underground to likely be used. Even if water is relatively clean, if the EPA approves a change in definition, an aquifer is no longer considered a “source of drinking water,” and is no longer protected.
[The ultimate frac abuse enabled by USA “regulators?” Allow companies to contaminate protected drinking water aquifers so that the companies can file petitions to the EPA, saying those aquifers are contaminated, to get legal permission to use those “protected” aquifers as frac waste dumping grounds?]
Applications to exempt an aquifer are supposed to undergo extensive scientific scrutiny, and today they usually do. But when the Safe Drinking Water Act was initially implemented, the federal government traded away much of that scrutiny as a compromise to win state and industry support for the new regulations. The EPA granted blanket exemptions for large swaths of territory underlying California and Texas oil fields, for example, and did the same in other states with large energy and mining industries. Documents from California, dating to 1981, estimate that at least 100 aquifers in the state’s central valley were granted exemptions.
It’s not always clear where the aquifers polluted under these early exemptions are located. For decades, both state officials and the federal government have struggled just to identify the precise places where the permits they issued applied, and where pollutants were being injected into groundwater. A spreadsheet listing thousands of exempted aquifer locations nationwide, provided to ProPublica in 2012 by the EPA in response to a Freedom of Information request, listed incomplete location coordinates for a majority of the exemptions, describing them merely by the county or township in which they are located . When pressed for more information, an EPA official admitted that was all the information the agency had.
California’s exemption records are only slightly more precise, and no less problematic.
Most of them appear to be best described in the appendices of a tattered 1981 document, yellowed with age. (State officials suggested to ProPublica this week that other records exist but could not produce them.) Overlying sections of a simple map of the state’s vast central valley, hand-drawn boundaries are sketched over areas equivalent to thousands of acres and shaded in. There are only vague descriptions like depth and name of the geologic formation, but nothing as precise as latitude and longitude coordinates, for the borders of the shaded areas. “Unfortunately, what we do not have is an easy-to-use, enumerated list,” Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the California Department of Conservation, wrote to ProPublica in an email this week. The state has never endeavored to measure the total volume of water it has allowed to be spoiled.
[!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!] The waste being injected into exempted aquifers is often described as merely “salt water.” Indeed, only “non-hazardous” substances are supposed to be pumped into aquifers, even with exemptions. But under concessions won by the oil industry and inserted into federal law, oilfield production waste — including chemicals known to cause cancer and fracking materials — are not legally considered “hazardous,” a term with a specific definition in federal environmental law. According to the California Department of Conservation, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, “drilling mud filtrate, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), slurrified crude-oil, saturated soils, and tank bottoms” are all allowed to be injected into aquifers as “non-hazardous” material.
Despite the substantial wiggle room granted by law, California has come under fire for not managing its roughly 52,000 waste wells properly. In 2011, the EPA sharply criticized the state for keeping poor records, mismanaging its environmental reviews, and failing to follow federal law. It suggested that the state’s autonomy over its groundwater regulations could be revoked, and that the EPA would impose federal oversight.
To fend off that change, California launched its own review and, in 2014, began to uncover extraordinary lapses: Thanks to poor recordkeeping and confusion over which aquifers had been written off, the state found more than 2,000 wells were injecting toxins not into exempt areas, but directly into the state’s drinking water aquifers.
[Frac Madness!] In 140 cases wastewater was being put into the highest quality aquifers, raising concerns in the state capitol about the threat to public health.
California shut down some 56 waste wells last year until it could sort out the mess, and it passed improved regulations that will give the state’s water agency a role in the approval process. Still, it has allowed injection to continue until the end of this year in 11 drinking water aquifers that it has to reevaluate because neither the feds nor state officials are sure whether they exempted them in the 1980s. The state is also allowing injection to continue until next February in other drinking water quality aquifers pending the approval of new aquifer exemptions that would extend that indefinitely.
Those 11 aquifers have been the focus of much of the state’s renewed attention, but California still hasn’t confirmed the borders of the hundreds of legacy exemptions in other aquifers that date back to the 1980s. Without taking this step, the state’s top water official said, there’s no way to know how much clean water California still has.
“That’s part of the whole point,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board told ProPublica, “not injecting into aquifers that people are depending on now, but also to go back and make sure we were not too loose on it in the past. Certainly the discovery of all these mistakes puts us on red alert.”
Now California — with Marcus’ blessing — may fix the problem by expanding the boundaries of exempted areas rather than identifying and restricting them.
The Department of Conservation is poised to consider as many as 70 new aquifer exemptions, redrawing some to include areas where companies have been injecting waste illegally into drinking water. In the state’s central valley, where a substantial portion of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown using groundwater, three applications for aquifer exemptions around the Fruitvale, Round Mountain and Tejon oil fields — all in or near Bakersfield — are already undergoing state reviews that would precede approval by the EPA.
And in February the state submitted final plans to the EPA to exempt a new portion of the Arroyo Grande Aquifer in Paso Robles, allowing oil companies to inject waste or fluids to help in pumping out more oil. In that case, Marcus and the state’s Water Resources Control Board — the agency in charge of the quality of the state’s water supply — say they agreed to allow the exemption because the aquifer was already of poor quality and would not be used in the future. [They can see the future?] Marcus said she was convinced the contaminants injected there could not migrate underground in ways that would affect other, cleaner water sources nearby — that they would be sealed in by the geologic structure of the region.
[A Few of Many Oil and Gas Industry Greed & Injection Reality Checks:
1980s: Texaco experimented with steaming bitumen deposits with a Fort McMurray thermal pilot. “They had a blow-out and the steam geyser looked like Yellowstone” reported Glen Schmidt, CEO of Laricina Energy, to the Edmonton Journal last year.
1985: LA, California, Dress For Less clothing store explosion, 23 injured, numerous businesses destroyed by industry’s greed over-injected fluids causing gas to migrate.
1988: josyln, Alberta, High pressure steam from a cyclic steam stimulation operation broke through an abandoned oil sands evaluation well and spilled more than 6,000 barrels into the forest, along with 4,000 barrels of toxic water laden with chlorides. The blow-out temporarily contaminated three shallow aquifers with chlorides. The company trucked more than 22,000 barrels of bitumen, water and peat to the landfill.
1989: South Peason, Manitoba, hydraulic fractures propagated into the underlying water zone in several oil wells. … “Ideally, the hydraulic fracture created should extend laterally within the zone of interest, however, it is well known that substantial vertical fracture propagation may also occur…. Complicating factors such as underlying water zones or overlying gas sections can be easily penetrated….”
1997: “A hydraulically induced fracture containing bitumen was encountered in the Colorado Shale at Imperial Oil’s Cold Lake Operation, during development drilling in 1997. The fracture was apparently caused by an inadvertent release of fluids from Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) operations in the Clearwater formation into the shale about 150 m above the producing formation. Subsequent drilling delineated the fracture to be over 1 km in diameter, extending over five 20-well pads.
Steam injection into the Clearwater formation induces overburden heave and also induces additional shear stresses in the shale.
These could cause the shale to slip along the fracture. Depending on the magnitude of the slip, casing strings could be deformed or even failed.
… A hydraulically induced fracture containing bitumen was encountered in the Colorado Shale (CS), during development drilling of the E07 pad in 1997. Fifteen Shale Evaluation Wells (SEW) were drilled through the CS to determine the extent of the fracture. Evidence of the fracture was found in wells drilled from five neighboring pads of CSS wells.
The evidence consisted of abnormally high fluid pressures, bitumen in the drilling returns, or, in the case of the initial observation, flow of bitumen to surface.”
Note that all high-pressure methods experience advective instabilities such as viscous fingering, permeability channeling, water or gas coning, and uncontrolled (upward) hydraulic fracture propagation. These instabilities result in bypassing oil, isolating bodies of the oil by sweeping permeable channels clear of oil, early loss of wells because of excessive water production or gas production, early loss of reservoir energy, and so on.”
2001: Hutchinson, Kansas, two people killed by industry’s greed over-injected gas migrating nearly 7 miles.
2003: Acheson (a few km from Edmonton), Alberta, Co2 migrated laterally 3,625 m in the same gas pool, after 13 years of injection, and up to the surface via an energy well. “However, migration within the same unit, particularly in a gas reservoir, is expected and its occurrence should not come as a surprise,” reported the regulator.
~ 2004/2005: Central Alberta, numerous frac incidents (on file in the energy regulator library) of frac fluids shooting out of zone, to surface.
2006: Cold Lake, Alberta, Total blasted a 300-metre crater in the boreal forest that created a one-kilometre-long dust plume during the beginning of a new steam-assisted gravity drainage operation. (Most caprock failures occur after five to seven years of pressurized steam injection.) Four years later the regulator called the explosion “catastrophic.” The regulator concluded that Total exceeded pressure limits and “was in noncompliance with scheme approval.” Steam then pooled below the caprock and erupted through a fracture or abandoned well. There is no conclusive identification of the cause of the failure. Nevertheless, the event illustrated that the energy available from water and steam can be formidable. … The event rendered nearly 30 million barrels of bitumen unrecoverable.
How bad is it?
The degree of contamination is widespread, of high impact and, in part, irreversible. The contamination spatially pervades an area of high conservation value to the north of Linc’s site. The principal contaminant indicator gases are evident in properties surrounding the site. Linc’s own monitoring and documentation demonstrated that gas excursions from its UCG process were likely to be occurring off-site. The full extent of the spread and concentration of the indicator gases has, as yet, not been confirmed. However, it is known to be widespread (>20 to 310km2).
What exactly has been left behind?
Contamination was caused by the release of the following contaminants into the environment:
Gases, in the form of syngas and its component gases and by-products.
Gas, in the form of an additional contaminant (biogenic methane) formed as a result of a succession of contaminating events.
Liquids, in the form of contaminated groundwaters.
Solids, in the form of tars and other petroleum products.
Odours, in the form of phenols and other products.
Energy in the form of heat, from the gasification process.
A combination of contaminants in the form of gas-liquid mixtures, available for further transport and future contamination.”
What risks are there in future?
Potential adverse effects on environmental values have been caused by:
Releasing contaminants to the overburden and the soil profile where they are now trapped and at risk of release during normal land use including agricultural operations.
Placing contaminants within the overburden that has and will continue to facilitate the formation of a new contaminant (biogenic methane) as a result of a succession of contaminating events, ready for future liberation and causing further changes to the soil atmosphere.
Placing contaminants within the overburden where they will be re-entrained over time as the groundwater level re-establishes potentially exposing these landholders to these contaminants over time and potentially impacting soil and ecological health and land use.
Is Linc Energy responsible?
No other activities or factors with an evident and intelligible justification for the levels of contaminants encountered. The contaminants identified and measured both on and off the site were products or by-products of UCG activities in that they exhibited the same gas fingerprint established under laboratory conditions. No other activity or source of hydrogen or other contaminants in the vicinity that could be credibly linked to or account for the results were encountered.
How much will it cost to fix?
The cost of appropriate action to prevent or minimise the harm and/or rehabilitate or restore the environment to its original condition would necessarily include the cost of the investigation to quantify the full extent of the harm. Such an investigation and restoration will necessarily run into millions of dollars.
How did it happen?
In August 2007, Linc injected air into the coal seam to create a connection between its G2 production and injection bores. Not only was the pressure high enough to fracture the coal seam, it was also high enough to fracture the overburden. Fracturing the overburden in this way meant the “safety blanket” Linc was relying on to contain its Syngas, wastes and contaminants had been breached. That Linc knew, or ought reasonably have known, it had breached the safety blanket should have been apparent from the pressures used. Once this fracturing had occurred, it was unsafe to ignite the coal seam.
Because the landform had been fractured so much, the groundwater regime irreversibly changed. This meant Linc could no longer rely on groundwater as a reliable part of the contaminant containing strategy. It was being consumed by the process itself. For the same reasons, groundwater could no longer be relied on as a reliable indicator of contaminant monitoring.
2009: Primrose East, Alberta, CNRL’s greed induced “excessive steam” injections forced massive amounts of heavy bitumen to surface, contaminating surface water and contaminated the Bonnyville aquifer 10 km away from the seepage site, likely further still from site of injection.
2009: Grand Prairie, Alberta, emulsified carbon dioxide blew to surface 1.6 km from site of injection.
2010: Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, nitrogen foam frac blew to surface 530 metres from site of injection.
2010: NE British Columbia, Safety advisory to industry by the energy regulator because of numerous deep fracs communicating out of zone: “Fracture propagation via large scale hydraulic fracturing operations has proven difficult to predict. Existing planes of weakness in target formations may result in fracture lengths that exceed initial design expectations.”
2010: Jackfish, Alberta, bitumen-laden steam burst 30 metres into the air at a steam-assisted gravity drainage well operated by Devon near Conklin, Alberta. The blow-out, which closed seven wells, was caused by a “catastrophic erosional wear” at the wellhead due to an unusual amount of sand production. It took nearly five days to control the steam release that poured nearly 300 cubic metres of bitumen and nearly 1,000 cubic metres of water on the surface. The company later blamed the event on failure to understand the gravity of sand erosion and lack of planning for well failure.
2011: Drayton Valley, Alberta: 8,000 litres nitrogen foam frac fluid communicated to surface.
2011: Rocky Mountain House, Alberta: 2,300 litres nitrogen foam frac fluid communicated to surface, 1500 metres from site of injection.
2012: Innisfail, Alberta, A frac blowout 1.2 km from the injection site spewed nearly 500 barrels of oil and water onto a central Alberta field, affecting 4.5 hectares and requiring the removal of just over 1,000 tonnes of soil and snow. … “Midway did not conduct the fracturing operation in compliance with its own internal procedures,” concluded the regulator’s investigation. The result was a geyser of oil, natural gas, process water and fracking fluids
2013: Cold Lake, Alberta: Every year Imperial Oil experiences well failures at its cyclic steam operation in Cold Lake. The steaming causes the ground to heave, breaks well casings and can result in spills and blowouts swallowing entire well pads. In 2008, engineer Maurice Dusseault reported that tearing at the caprock occurs routinely at Imperial’s cyclic steam stimulation project and it “experiences dozens of well shear events; these wells must be repaired or replaced at considerable cost.” Casing well failure is routine in Cold Lake. A 2002 study found that 92 out of 585 wells on 22 pad sites failed over a five-year period.
Recent In Situ Progress Presentations to the Alberta Energy Regulator reveal a myriad of problems. Steam from Imperial’s wells has travelled through fractures and broken into bitumen formations owned by Husky. Steam has also moved from a depth of 420 metres in the Clearwater formation to shallower formations closer to the surface, such as the Grand Rapids and Colorado shales. This “interzonal communication” can affect groundwater.
As a consequence of assorted fractures, well casing failures and leaks, Imperial is now investigating levels of benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene that exceed Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines in local groundwater. Imperial also reports numerous “bitumen in shale” incidents, where steamed bitumen finds its way into groundwater aquifers at depths of 153 metres or nearly 400 metres away from the target formation.
Steam has mobilized arsenic in the region and forced an elaborate groundwater monitoring program.
2015: 200 Evacuated, Nearly 70 homes damaged in Marinza, Albania by Bankers Petroleum’s greed-induced injections.
Summaries copied from various posts, reports and papers
End Many Oil and Gas Industry Greed & Injection Reality Checks]
Still, the areas California is writing off are surrounded by underground water reserves that get used every day. An exemption might cover the water soaked up in one particular layer of rock, at a certain depth, even while wells extract water from aquifers above or below it. And, according to Golden-Krasner, the state’s assessment that pollution will remain confined is often dependent on an oil company maintaining a specific pressure underground, making the future of the clean water vulnerable to human error.
In our 2012 investigation, ProPublica found numerous cases in which waste defied the containment that regulators and their computer models had promised, and contamination spread. In many instances, injection wells themselves punched holes in the earth’s seal and leaked. In others, faults and fissures in the earth moved in ways that allowed trapped fluids to migrate. Several of the problems documented had occurred in California.
The area around Bakersfield affected by the majority of the new aquifer pollution applications is also home to one of the state’s largest underground water storage facilities, the Kern Water Bank, relied on by California farmers. It lies directly above at least one of the exempted aquifers and is pierced by dozens of oil wells. The state’s water board supports the exemptions, but their close proximity to drinking water could be reason to worry, acknowledges Jonathan Bishop, the chief deputy director of the Water Resources Control Board.
“Are we concerned that wells going through aquifers that have beneficial use be maintained and have high integrity? Yeah,” Bishop said. “They do go through drinking water aquifers in many locations, not just in Bakersfield.”
Opponents of the exemption program are infuriated by the fact that applications are evaluated on an isolated basis, without any consideration of the state’s larger water supply issues.
The original criteria for aquifer exemptions set out in federal statute never contemplated that in California and plenty of others states, multiple exemptions could be granted in close proximity or that polluted areas could be sandwiched between clean water reserves. Neither state nor federal codes call for any broader analysis of the cumulative risk. [Of course not, if they did, the “regulators” would have to decline the exemption requests]
“Their whole review is from the perspective of can we check the boxes on federal criteria and the state law,” said John Noel, who covers oil and gas issues for the environmental group Clean Water Action. “Nobody is asking the question, if we exempt these five aquifers what is the long term supply impact? How much water are we writing off?” [Emphasis added]
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