The burning problem of hazardous waste

Whatever the cause and however extensive, a fire’s sheer destructive power always captures attention. The recent explosion and fire at a New Mexico oil field quickly grabbed headlines with images of roiling flames, thick smoke, and stories of residents forced to evacuate. Concerns remain about air quality, the lack of any evacuation plan, and health as WPX Energy, owner of the site, let the fire burn itself out—releasing toxins into the air in the process.

It’s logical and not that unusual for a drilling site to catch fire; both oil and natural gas are highly combustible and flammable. Yet photos from the New Mexico fire reveal that several tanks used to store waste were also burning intensely.

It appears that the waste on fire may have been “produced water,” fluid contained in geological formations that’s brought to the surface during oil and gas production. Although the industry often refers to it by the innocuous term “brine,” this waste product often contains much more than high levels of salt, including metals, oil, grease, and radiological material. As it flows upward, produced water can also mix with fluids and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Given its chemistry, even liquid oil and gas field waste can go up in flames. Federal regulators have long been aware that extraction and production wastes can spontaneously combust. Some examples of this happening include:

Ignitability is one of the four technical criteria that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to determine if a waste is hazardous. (The others are corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity.) Yet nearly 30 years ago, the EPA, created a loophole exempting oil and gas waste from the protections of our federal hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  

But legal fictions do not render waste benign. EPA has stated very clearly that some oil and gas waste would meet the definition of hazardous were it not for the exemption. In addition, a growing body of science has demonstrated the hazardous qualities of oil and gas waste.

The nature of waste certainly didn’t prompt the RCRA exemption; it was the cost of compliance. EPA concluded that characterizing oil and gas wastes as hazardous would be unduly burdensome for industry, and that state regulators could manage the problem.

Nevertheless, the result of these assumptions is that polluters don’t pay for the waste they create—instead leaving the public footing the bill of dealing with oil and gas waste. RCRA requires waste tracking, testing, and disposal practices that operators rarely practice, and which states rarely require.

WPX Energy says that as soon as it determines that cause of the Chaco Canyon fire, it will share that information with the public. But will the company—and the oil and gas industry overall—ever admit that one of the reasons operations pose a fire hazard is the ignitability of growing volumes of hazardous waste?

The oil and gas industry has been pushing hard to expand drilling in the Chaco area and surrounding Navajo communities. But wherever drilling goes, large volumes of polluting wastes follow. For decades, oil and gas companies have gotten away with improperly managing their waste—and our water, air, land, and health continue to pay the price. How many more polluting events will it take to light a fire under industry and regulators, and finally start treating hazardous oil and gas waste as hazardous?