Howard Wilshire, October 2016
Programs for disposing of fluid wastes by injection into the ground in wells are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Rules for permitting such wells are specified in EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program; the basic purpose is to prevent contamination of aquifers that are, or could become, potential sources of drinking water.
The EPA recognizes six classes of fluid waste injection wells; Classes I and II are of concern here. Class I wells dispose of hazardous industrial wastes from a variety of industries, and are regulated under stringent controls to prevent aquifer contamination. Class II wells are dedicated to disposal of oil, gas and mining wastes that were declared to be legally “nonhazardous” under environmental law from intensive industry lobbying in Congress. Class II well regulations have much looser controls than those applied to Class I wastes.
In a move favorable to the oil and gas industry, EPA agreed to delegate permitting and management of injection wells to states. California received approval for this in 1983. Initially the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Program (UIC) rules stated that aquifers could only be permitted as disposal locations (“exempted”) if they are too contaminated to be used for drinking water, and those exempted aquifers never would be used to provide drinking water in the future. This aquifer “exemption” condition was later modified to “unlikely to be used.”
The public received a big surprise from the 2014 revelation that the CA Division of Oil and Gas Resources (DOGGR), the state agency in charge of UIC implementation, had announced an emergency shutdown of direct disposal through Class II wells into eleven CA aquifers that did not qualify for exemption. In June 2014, the Governor’s Office requested that the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) perform an independent review of the state’s Underground Injection Control Program. DOGGR regulates more than 50,000 oilfield injection wells in California, so this is no small undertaking, and still is far from complete.
As of February 2015, approximately 2,500 wastewater disposal and enhanced oil recovery wells [including disposal wells for fracking fluids] were found to be injecting wastes into potentially non-exempt [i.e. protected] “zones” [locations that put aquifers at risk of contamination]. 2,100 of the wells are still active; of these, approximately 140 wells were found to be injecting wastes directly into aquifers of high water quality. Very belated regulations added the State’s water agencies to the permit approval process, but only 56 wells were shut down in 2014.
Preliminary water sampling of selected, high-risk groundwater supply wells has not yet detected contamination from oil production wastewater. Just how rigorous the testing is, and what constituents are sought in the tests is not publicly disclosed.
State officials are assuring that wells posing an unacceptable risk [undefined] of contamination to any potential drinking water sources will be shut down, but the contamination of those sources must first be demonstrated. Thus, 140 wells are pumping oil/gas wastes into high quality ground water aquifers, but apparently have not yet caused measured contamination, so are not yet subject to closure. This ignores the fact that granting permits to those 140 wells was a violation of the UIC in the first place.
It is evident that DOGGR’s pre-June 2014 UIC implementation was shoddy and confused. A 2015 CalEPA memo that described progress on the governor’s order, also provided background information on the State’s confused delegation of authority when it applied to become the UIC’s primary enforcing agency. For example, two conflicting Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) between the State and the U.S. EPA turned up in the records:
- One of these MOAs expressly designated the 11 aquifers [those shut down in the 2014 emergency] as non-exempt [i.e., protected] when DOGGR sought to exempt them. This MOA required that existing injection wells into those aquifers be phased out over 18 months.
- The other MOA was identical to the first, except that it omitted the sentence regarding non-exemption of the 11 aquifers and requirement of closure of the wells discharging into them in 18 months. Adding confusion, the signature and dating page of the first MOA was copied and attached to the second MOA, thus giving no indication of which was the governing MOA.
As if this were insufficient confusion, DOGGR and the U.S. EPA ultimately agreed to formally exempt the 11 aquifers as part of the agreement delegating UIC management authority to CA. This allowed another 30 years of pumping contamination into those 11 aquifers, while the State’s permitting authority was loosened to allow still more disposal wells to threaten the integrity of potential drinking water aquifers.
Now, in 2016, the EPA is formalizing its prior approval for disposing fracking wastes into open waters of the Gulf of Mexico [Truthout, 22 September 2016], at the same time that California is openly poised to consider as many as 70 new aquifer exemptions [ProPublica, 4 September 2016. EPA may approve of other wells that have been illegally discharging wastes into drinking water.
In a too-brief moment of DOGGR managerial enlightenment, the emergency shut-down order on disposal wells that injected oil and gas wastes directly into 11 CA aquifers has revealed a deplorable record of poor protection for the State’s underground water resources. The full extent of peril due to oil and gas industry influence, supposedly overseen by a competent independent agency, is yet to be assessed. But that agency still is ordering exemptions that menace needed water supplies, based on an untested assumption that the geology can safely contain the poisoned water.
This whole process must be taken out of DOGGR’s hands and the focus directed to assessing and mitigating problems caused by the State’s thousands of existing disposal wells. The State must determine what Class II wells are actually dumping wastes into, and must shut down all wells that contribute to aquifer contamination, plus all wells that introduce wastes into rock units and structures that cannot assure containment.