This week, our friends with Clean Water Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, and New Mexico Environmental Law Center petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to perform a wholesale rewrite of their rules protecting underground sources of drinking water (USDW).
Our story beings back in 1974, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to protect our water sources for drinking, agriculture, and other purposes. One of the principal tools EPA uses to protect our water is their program designed to control underground injections- not so creatively named the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.
SDWA has six classes of UIC wells. Oil and gas companies use Class II wells to both recover hydrocarbons and dispose of their waste. Class III wells are used for a fracking-like technique for uranium mining called in-situ leaching (ISL).
In ISL, operators inject a solution, called a lixiviant, down a well toward an ore body. The lixiviant turns the ore in to a slush that is then pumped up to the surface for processing. Whether injecting chemicals under enormous pressures to fracture shale or a lixiviant strong enough to dissolve uranium, these extreme practices inevitably contaminate our aquifers. Conceding that these methods for fracking and uranium mining pollute our USDWs, the industry needed a way out.
In 1982, EPA crafted special rules allowing the industry to pollute our aquifers that are not currently used or will not in the future serve as a drinking water source. Aquifers at a depth, quality, or location that make its water technologically or economically impractical for drinking can qualify for the exemption. But the system is outdated and broken.
This petition asks EPA to pause exempting aquifers until they fix and modernize their aquifer exemption program. One key problem, identified from documents NRDC received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, is that EPA simply does not really know what’s out there. For instance, of the 4,937 exemptions granted (at least the total for which EPA has records), 2/3 have no water quality data. And yet, EPA approved more than 95% of them.
Clean Water Action reinforced many of these shortcomings in their recent report identifying significant problems with California’s aquifer exemptions.
The Times They Are a Changin’
Many aquifers that, thirty years ago, may have been more appropriate for exemption, no longer qualify. Improving technology, greater water scarcity, and climate change have fundamentally changed the conditions under which this program should operate. For example, better and cheaper filtration technologies mean that some aquifers once written off as unusable, now can serve our increasing water consumption needs. In addition, the rapid and recent increase in oil drilling and ISL mining limit the USDWs available to us. Population growth and climate change contribute to these stresses on our precious water resources.
All of these factors, EPA must consider through a new rule making that protects the water we need now and in the future.
It’s time for EPA to stop allowing the industry to inject their chemicals in to our drinking water aquifers. EPA must also fix this program so they know where the aquifers are, what their water quality level is, and account for changed circumstances. It’s not the ‘80s any more.