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EPA Plans to Allow Unlimited Dumping of Fracking Wastewater in the Gulf
Thursday, 22 September 2016 00:00 By Mike Ludwig, Truthout | News Analysis
Environmentalists are warning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
that its draft plan to continue allowing oil and gas companies to dump
unlimited amounts of fracking chemicals and wastewater directly into the
Gulf of Mexico is in violation of federal law.
In a letter sent to EPA officials on Monday, attorneys for the Center
for Biological Diversity warned that the agency's draft permit for water
pollution discharges in the Gulf fails to properly consider how dumping
wastewater containing chemicals from fracking and acidizing operations
would impact water quality and marine wildlife.
The attorneys claim that regulators do not fully understand how the
chemicals used in offshore fracking and other well treatments -- some of
which are toxic and dangerous to human and marine life -- can impact
marine environments, and crucial parts of the draft permit are based on
severely outdated data. Finalizing the draft permit as it stands would
be a violation of the Clean Water Act, they argue.
"The EPA is endangering an entire ecosystem by allowing the oil industry
to dump unlimited amounts of fracking chemicals and drilling waste fluid
into the Gulf of Mexico," said Center attorney Kristen Monsell. "This
appalling plan from the agency that's supposed to protect our water
violates federal law, and shows a disturbing disregard for offshore
fracking's toxic threats to sea turtles and other Gulf wildlife."
The Center has a history of using legal action to stop polluters and
challenge the government to enforce environmental regulations, so the
letter could be seen as a warning shot over the EPA's bow. Earlier this
year, lawsuits filed by the Center and another group won a temporary
moratorium on offshore fracking in the Pacific Ocean, and the groups are
currently preparing to challenge fracking in the Santa Barbara Channel
under the Endangered Species Act.
Offshore fracking involves pumping water, chemicals and sand at
extremely high pressure into undersea wells to break up rock and sand
formations and clear pathways for oil and gas. Offshore drillers also
treat wells with corrosive acids, such as hydrochloric acid, in a
process known as "acidizing."
The technologies have been used hundreds of times to enhance oil and gas
production at hundreds of Gulf wells in recent years, and
environmentalists say use of the technology could increase in the future
as the industry seeks to maximize production in aging offshore fields.
Still, little was publicly known about these "well treatments" until
Truthout and environmental groups began filing information requests with
Regulators and the fossil fuel industry say offshore fracking operations
have a good safety record and tend to be smaller in size compared to
onshore operations, but environmentalists continue to worry about the
chemicals used in the process because many of them are known to harm
marine wildlife. Plus, dolphins and other species in the Gulf are still
suffering from the lingering effects of the 2010 BP oil spill.
Under the EPA's current and draft permits, offshore drillers are allowed
to dump an unlimited amount of fracking and acidizing chemicals
overboard as long as they are mixed with the wastewater that returns
from undersea wells. Oil and gas platforms dumped more than 75 billion
gallons of these "produced waters" directly into the Gulf of Mexico in
2014 alone, according to the Center's analysis of EPA records.
These large volumes of wastewater cannot contain oil and must meet
toxicity standards, but oil and gas operators are only required to test
the waste stream a few times a year. Monsell said these tests could
easily be conducted at times when few or no fracking chemicals are
present in the wastewater.
The EPA expects these chemicals to have little impact on the environment
because the large volumes of wastewater and the ocean dilute them, but
the Center points out that much of the EPA's data on the subject comes
from studies prepared in the 1980s and 1990s. Offshore production
technology has advanced since then and hundreds of frack jobs have
occurred in the Gulf in the past five years alone.
"All they have to do is ask the Interior Department for this
information, because they just compiled it all for us," said Monsell,
referring to the thousands of documents recently released to Truthout
and the Center under the Freedom of Information Act.
These documents, released under a legal settlement between the Interior
Department and the Center, show that regulators approved more than 1,500
frack jobs at over 600 Gulf wells between 2010 and 2014 with permit
modifications that were exempted from comprehensive environmental reviews.
Monsell said the EPA's permit is just another example of a federal
agency "rubber-stamping" permits for offshore fracking without taking a
hard look at how the technology impacts the environment. The EPA, she
argues, should prohibit the dumping of hazardous fracking chemicals and
other wastes directly into ocean altogether.
"It's the EPA's job to protect water quality from offshore fracking, not
rubber-stamp the dumping of the wastewater from this dangerous,
disgusting practice," Monsell said.
The draft permit does prohibit the dumping of oil in the Gulf and
proposes a new rule that would require oil and gas operators to keep an
inventory of the fracking and acidizing chemicals kept on board. This
inventory must be made available to regulators upon request. The
government's most up-to-date list of offshore fracking chemicals is now
15 years old, and the Interior Department regulators are currently
working to update it.
Monsell worries, however, that these inventories would not track how
much of the chemicals are dumped overboard, and the public will not be
able to access them unless the EPA or Interior Department requests
copies first. Even then, watchdogs may have to wait on the government to
process more information requests in order to make those inventories public.
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