If the US Environmental Protection Agency reported that 23 percent of oil and gas waste is 100 times more toxic than health safety limits, one could reasonably assume the stuff is dangerous. If the EPA then estimated that anywhere between 10 and 70 percent of all fossil fuel waste is hazardous to human health, one could also assume that, as a federal agency charged with protecting Americans’ wellbeing, proper guidelines would be established for disposing of the waste.
Well, you know what happens when you assume.
The EPA reported both of those things in the ‘80s, but oil and gas waste is not considered hazardous material. In 1988, the EPA exempted the waste from oil and gas development from regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which allows states to regulate it however they want. This is why solid waste disposal pits are currently being dug less than a mile from a K-12 school in southeast Texas.
The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News investigated the reason behind this federal exemption for over a year and discovered that it is largely due to money. The EPA calculated that classifying oil and gas waste as hazardous could incur $700 million in disposal fees, which would be passed on to consumers. And that’s the most conservative estimate. The costs could potentially reach as high as $4.5 billion.
So one can assume the EPA allowed this loophole for the benefit of the American consumer. Or the fossil fuel industry. Assume away.
On Thursday, environmental nonprofit Earthworks released a new report that examines how four states are managing their oil and gas waste. The answer? Not well.
Wasting Away: Four States’ Failure to Manage Oil and Gas Waste in the Marcellus and Utica Shale investigates waste management practices in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In these states, the hydraulic fracturing boom has left plenty of waste behind. In the case of New York, the only state to officially ban fracking, waste is still produced from conventional drilling, and fracking waste is still accepted for disposal from outside its borders.
“Our analysis shows that states aren’t keeping track of this waste or disposing of it properly,” the report’s lead author, Nadia Steinzor, told EcoWatch. “States must take realistic, concrete steps to better protect the public.”
The Earthworks report highlights major shortcomings in oil and gas waste management and provides recommendations for how the issue can be improved. Improvements are sorely needed, as the lucrative shale deposits have boosted fracking development throughout the region. Between 1995 and 2009, oil and gas well production grew by over 20 percent; by 2013, the number of natural gas wells had swelled by 65 percent and oil production grew by 39 percent. Today, according to the report, there are over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells nationwide – and most of them are fracking operations.
Each well produces both liquid and solid waste, which can be chock full of hazardous materials, yet the materials are not treated as hazardous by these states. Hell, in California, frackers have pumped billions of gallons of wastewater into once-potable aquifers – and that’s completely legal.
Wastewater produced from oil and gas drilling can contain such toxins as arsenic, heavy metals, radioactive material and toluene, as well as benzene and chromium-6, both of which are known cancer-causing agents.
FEMA investigates a cracked roadway in Washington (Image: Creative Commons)
(There is also substantial evidence of correlation between fracking and earthquakes, which is not the issue at hand but is worth mentioning in case you weren’t mad enough yet.)
“This report shows what citizens have known for a long time…that no one is watching the waste,” Teresa Mills, a member of the Ohio Center for Health Environment, and Justice, said in a press release. “[T]he fact is that there is no tracking of the majority of the oil and gas waste stream. States facing fracking face a huge problem of what to do with the waste.”
Among its recommendations, Earthworks encourages states to officially recognize oil and gas waste as hazardous; require waste testing before it leaves drilling sites; implement “cradle to grave” tracking of wastes from inception to disposal; and require proper treatment and disposal of said waste (natch).
As of this writing, oil and gas waste can be disposed of in municipal landfills and sewage treatment plants. Tracking it is the responsibility of drillers and disposal operators, but drillers are not required to report the volume, type, chemical content, disposal process, origin or destination of the waste with any specificity, according to the report.