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The Deadly Misconception of Long Term Isolation of Liquid Toxic Wastes: Deep Underground Injection Wells Don’t Work

In 2011

In 2011, a Democratic Congressional Investigating Committee determined that 14 leading oil companies used 2500 different toxic fracking liquids. The liquids contained 750 different chemicals, including 270 undisclosed ingredients protected by industry trade secret laws which the oil and gas service companies themselves were unable to identify. Prior to the onset of fracking, and in total disregard of a vast literature of previous work on water ingress, retention and release in deep geological formations, oil and gas industry scientists and environmental officials argued that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the liquid waste for millennia. They were dead wrong and should have known it.

For more than 50 years, scientists hired to advise the NRC, the DOE and the EPA on safe disposal of chemical and nuclear wastes, argued that deep underground disposal of toxic liquids is indefensible and dangerous. Only the EPA ignored the advice. The results of Environmental Impact studies demonstrating overwhelming uncertainties in the travel and retention of liquids in a variety of deep underground geologies, led to the promulgation of federal rules for disposal of high level and low level toxic wastes that required, not only solidification and/or vitrification, but further encapsulation in an impermeable “Waste Package” or container. This was required for for medical and chemical wastes as well as radioactive wastes.

In contrast to federal disposal sites, in the last 60 years, US industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic waste into deep underground wells in more than 30 states, under the almost non-existent regulation of Congress, the States and the EPA.

In 1980, California Rep. Henry Waxman sponsored a measure that allowed the EPA to delegate authority to oversee toxic waste injection to state oil and gas regulators, even if the rules they applied varied from the Safe Drinking Water Act and federal guidelines.

A few years later, Dick Stamets, New Mexico’s chief oil and gas regulator at the time, told a crowd of state regulators and industry representatives that the Waxman amendment was a biblical deliverance from oppressive federal oversight for the drilling industry.

“The Pharaoh EPA did propose regulations and there was chaos upon the earth,” Stamets said. “The people groaned and labored, and great was their suffering until Moses Section 1425 (the Waxman amendment) did lead them to the Promised Land.”

The Promised Land Was Even Better Than Expected

The Waxman amendment and EPA’s abrogation of its own regulatory authority was a magnanimous gift to the oil and gas industry. It allowed the development of the concept of a “Class 2” well, an exclusive toilet for the oil and gas industry. Toxic wastes from factories or refineries were prohibited, but the same wastes from the energy industry were permitted with little if any oversight as long as they resulted from drilling. 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 of unknown composition under conditions of no regulation and no analyses.

Neither Waxman nor Congress, nor the states, nor the EPA was prepared for the simultaneous discoveries of monumental deposits of shale containing natural gas and new technologically advanced fracking techniques which produced an enormous surge of new liquid toxic fracking waste which is being injected with essentially no regulation into new and old wells.

In a complete turnabout, on April 16, 2011 a Democratic Congressional Investigating Committee headed by Waxman determined that between 2005 and 2009, 14 leading oil companies used 2500 different toxic fracking liquids. The liquids contained 750 different chemicals, including 270 undisclosed ingredients protected by industry trade secret laws which the oil and gas service companies themselves were unable to identify. Diana DeGette, Ranking Member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee wrote,

“It is deeply disturbing to discover the content and quantity of toxic chemicals… being injected into the ground without the knowledge of the communities whose health could be affected. Of particular concern to me is that we learned that over the four-year period studied, over one and a half million gallons of carcinogens were injected into the ground in Colorado. Many companies were also unable to even identify some of the chemicals they were using in their own activities”

Regulatory Capture and EPA Apologists

The dangers of injection have been known for half a century. 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 more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide many of which are releasing toxins into the environment. Of more than 220,000 federal and state well inspections from late 2007 to late 2010, one violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined.Penalties for injection well violations are rare and always trivial. Prosecution and punishment have never occurred.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary regulatory authority over the nation’s injection wells, would not discuss specific well failures identified by ProPublica or make staffers available for interviews. The agency also declined to answer many questions in writing, although it sent responses to several. Its director for the Drinking Water Protection Division, Ann Codrington, sent a statement to ProPublica defending the injection program’s effectiveness.

“Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done,” the statement said. “EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program.”

The “Final Solution” – EPA’s Toxic Antidote to Toxic Waste

The energy industry won a monumental critical change in the federal government’s legal definition of waste, when in 1988, EPA ruled that all material resulting from the oil and gas drilling process is considered non-hazardous, regardless of its content or toxicity.

“It took a lot of talking to sell the EPA on that and there are still a lot of people that don’t like it,” Bill Bryson, a geologist and former head of the Kansas Corporation Commission’s Conservation Division, who lobbied for and helped draft the federal rules was reported to have said by ProPublica. “But it seemed the best way to protect the environment and to stop everybody from just having to test everything all the time.”(author’s emphasis)

[Use of fracturing fluids in hydraulic fracturing operations was explicitly excluded from regulation under the American Clean Water Act in 2005, except for diesel-based additive fracturing fluids, which have a higher proportion of volatile organic compounds and carcinogenic BTEX than other fracking fluids.]


Neither Congress nor the EPA has raised the 2 obvious questions that would concern chemists with responsibility for accident analyses:

-Since the oil and gas industry do not know what chemicals are in their fracking mixtures, why do they need 2500 different ones?

-Are the unaccountably enormous number of ill-defined mixtures and chemicals being used to cover-up widespread disposal of illegal toxins?

Congress and the EPA have allowed the oil and gas industry to dump any and all their toxic materials in “Class 2” wells under the guise “oil field drillings” without supervision or analyses. The EPA has ignored its regulatory responsibilities and relies “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.” In other work, I have noted that more than a dozen government agencies, including the EPA, are under investigation for ethics violations. Unfortunately, experience has shown that government investigations of its own failings are like treadmills – no matter how long it takes and no matter how much you huff and puff, you end up in the same place you started.

For regulatory agencies and the industries they monitor through “revolving doors,” “ethics and honor” are in the archaic portion of the vocabulary. In the Orwellian puddle of American acronyms, EPA has been transformed into the Environmental Pollution Agency. R.I.P. EPA

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