A coalition of environmental organizations is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming federal regulators have for three decades failed to update rules for disposing of fracking and drilling wastes that may threaten public health and the environment.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asks the court to set deadlines for the EPA to update its disposal rules.
The EPA has not reviewed regulations for oil and gas wastes since July of 1988, the lawsuit notes, even though the use of hydraulic fracturing and drilling waste production has grown dramatically in the United States. In fact, over the past decade fracking has become the main method of oil and gas extraction in the U.S.
Fracked wells provide about two-thirds of the country’s gas production, according to the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration data released Thursday. Half of the country’s crude oil production comes from fracking, which requires injecting water and chemicals into the ground at high pressures to break up rocks and release oil and gas. The wastewater, which may hold chemicals that harm the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife, is then either stored in man-made ponds, injected into underground wells, or sent back to waterways after treatment.
Organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Integrity Project and some six others, want updated rules covering disposal of fracking wastewater in underground injection wells, which have been linked to river contamination most recently in West Virginia, and earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and California.
“Waste from the oil and gas industry is very often toxic and should be treated that way,” Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “EPA must step in and protect our communities and drinking water from the carcinogens, radioactive material and other dangerous substances that go hand-in-hand with oil and gas waste.”
Environmentalists want the EPA to ban the practice of spreading fracking wastewater onto roads or fields, and to require landfills and waste ponds to be built with liners that prevent spills or leaks into groundwater and streams. It is estimated that over 2 billion gallons of fracking waste fluid, or brine, are injected in thousands of wells every day, according to the EPA. Most oil and gas injection wells are in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
Groups first said they would sue in August unless the EPA revised rules as mandated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, a federal law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. In the letter, groups said EPA rules don’t address issues relevant to the modern oil and gas industry.
Environmentalists also claim the RCRA requires the EPA to review regulations and state guidelines at least every three years and, if necessary, revise them. They allege the agency determined in 1988 that revisions were necessary but hasn’t acted since. “Updated rules for oil and gas wastes are almost 30 years overdue, and we need them now more than ever,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, in a statement. “EPA’s inaction has kept the most basic, inadequate rules in place. The public deserves better than this.”
For years the EPA has had limited jurisdiction over fracking thanks to Congress, Richard Parker, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, told ThinkProgress in past interviews. For instance, the EPA has jurisdiction on waste injection wells only if diesel is among the fracking chemicals involved. That means the industry can avoid EPA jurisdiction by not using diesel. In turn, oil and gas development is mainly regulated by states. Some states and municipalities have in recent months moved to regulate fracking waste practices, but the industry has often challenged these laws in court.
The EPA won’t comment on pending litigation.