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Without closing regulatory loopholes for the oil and gas industry, the EPA’s latest produced water study won’t protect anything but the industry’s bottom line.

On October 9th, the U.S. EPA held a public meeting about its “holistic” study of oil and gas liquid waste – aka produced water – management among states and tribes. EPA’s presentation of their study thus far was reasoned and well-rounded, pointing out gaps in current regulations that allow toxic and unknown pollutants into our environment.

But without closing loopholes created by this industry and its partners in politics, the EPA’s latest produced water study will not protect anything but the industry’s bottom line.

Oil and gas waste management has primarily been delegated to the states, resulting in large regulatory gaps allowing ever more oil and waste products into our environment, including our rivers and crop lands. Industry lobbying since the 1970’s created the oil and gas exemption from hazardous waste standards under the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) and loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates underground injection, the primary disposal method for oil and gas waste.   

At the meeting, representatives of the oil and gas industry called for ‘equity’ in federal regulations – that they be allowed to discharge wastewater into waterways like other industries. But if the oil and gas sector really wants equity in regulations, that would mean compliance with regulations that other industries have to follow, but from which oil and gas companies are currently exempt.

Epiphany Moment

Where I’m from in Potter County, Pennsylvania, a treatment facility, called Epiphany, was proposed that the company said could turn fracking waste into “pure, clean water” before routing it through a municipal sewage plant and discharging the effluent into the Upper Allegheny River. But when we asked for the data proving their technology removed all chemicals, Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM), and other toxicants, the company didn’t provide it. It was this uncertainty that killed the project, thankfully, because now my hometown is not a transportation and disposal hub for radioactive oil and gas waste.

But other experiments in other communities have already been permitted by the states for years. In Pennsylvania, “treated” produced water is discharged from facilities into our rivers, and studies show that bromide, ammonia, and cancer-causing radium have accumulated and destroyed aquatic life as a result. Radium and potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbons have also been dumped onto our roads in Pennsylvania for 30 years, and a study by Penn State has revealed dangerous levels of these toxicants in produced water being used on roads for dust suppression and de-icing. There is radium in our riverbeds, and radium on our roads.

The EPA knows all this – the research is referenced in EPA’s study of centralized wastewater treatment (CWT) facilities released in May of this year. EPA is already under a consent decree to determine by March 2019 whether to propose narrowly tailored standards for oil and gas waste disposal.

What We Know and Don’t Know

The EPA reported they hope to publish a “white paper” about their study in the first quarter of 2019, with policy recommendations coming as soon as the second quarter. We worry about proposals to allow operators to send their fracking wastewater to local water or sewage treatment plants, like Epiphany’s, or other attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act.  

Due to exemptions from environmental law, no one really knows:

1) what is in each load of oil and gas waste

2) where the waste is going, stored, transported, treated, and disposed of, and

3) to what degree oil and gas waste impacts the places we live and love.

This problem is bigger than the Clean Water Act.

The EPA’s needs to require full chemical disclosure, analysis and testing of produced wastewater onsite, for all potential toxicants, including TENORM. Let the results then dictate everything that happens next – how wastewater may be reused, whether it is safe to apply to crops or roads, what treatment is needed, whether it is safe to discharge into waterways. Science and the precautionary principle, rather than politics, should guide EPA’s efforts.