I once worked at an office with a big sign in the employee kitchen: “Your parents don’t work here. Clean up after yourself.” Some years later when I began to visit gas drilling areas, those words often came to mind. Today, Earthworks released a report detailing the many ways that gas and oil operators—and the regulators charged with overseeing them—appear unwilling to heed this basic request.
Wasting Away: Four states’ failure to manage gas and oil field waste from the Marcellus and Utica Shale is a comprehensive examination of what Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York are doing about rapidly increasing volumes of contaminated and potentially hazardous waste. We decided to look into the issue in response to questions asked with growing frequency as oil and gas development expands: What does the waste contain? Where does it go and what happens as a result?
The premise for our research was the fact that in 1988, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted oil and gas exploration, development, and production (E&P) wastes from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal hazardous and solid waste law. With that decision, state and federal regulators were off the hook for RCRA requirements such as “cradle-to-grave” tracking of waste from where it’s created to where it ends up; comprehensive testing of waste to determine its content and risks; and disposal at facilities specially designed to handle the type of waste in question.
We knew that EPA’s decision wasn’t based on oil and gas waste being harmless—EPA clearly stated at the time that much of it would likely meet the federal definition of hazardous, and states acknowledge that waste contains toxic chemicals and radioactivity. Instead, this special loophole for polluters was created because the agency thought that state-level oversight was “adequate.” (EPA also said it would cost oil and gas operators more to manage waste classified as hazardous, as politically unpopular a concept then as it is now.)
Wasting Away concludes that 30 years on, state regulation of oil and gas waste is far from “adequate.” Although some steps have been taken to strengthen oversight, rules, and policies, significant gaps remain. States are playing catch up—or ignoring the basic fact that more gas and oil production results in more waste.
Our research found that in many instances, decisions about how to define waste and where it ends up are largely left up to the preferences and discretion of gas and oil operators. At the same time, states continue to permit practices that pose proven risks to water, air, and soil, and ultimately health: the storage of waste in open pits and impoundments, spreading of waste on roads and land, disposal at municipal landfills and sewage treatment plants, injection underground, and more.
In sum, the oil and gas industry and state regulators have yet to follow a basic rule in many households and workplaces—leaving communities and the environment to pay the price. States can still choose to learn it, or EPA can step up and make them: Clean up after yourself.