Tags: EPA | pollute | aquifers | mining

ProPublica: EPA Allows Waivers for Mining Companies to Pollute Aquifers

By John Morgan   |   Wednesday, 12 Dec 2012 02:30 PM

Energy and mining companies have received government approval to pollute freshwater aquifers that supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water, according to a report by ProPublica, the investigative journalism project.

The so-called “aquifer exemptions” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allow toxic material to enter underground reservoirs, some of them in drought-stricken areas, the organization said. At least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because they were reportedly used as dumping ground.

“You are sacrificing these aquifers,” said Mark Williams, a University of Colorado hydrologist and National Science Foundation researcher. “By definition, you are putting pollution into them… If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go.”

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“We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are or whom they might affect,” ProPublica stated.

The Safe Drinking Water Act specifically prohibits waste injection into drinking water sources and requires that oil and gas and disposal wells in the vicinity do not leak.

But ProPublica reported that a surge in domestic drilling and uranium mining has produced more exemption applications, in addition to political pressure not to block or delay them, according to unnamed EPA officials.

“The energy policy in the U.S. is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium,” a senior EPA official said.

The Western states of Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado are where the most aquifer exemptions have been granted, ProPublica said. Advances in pipeline technology allow water to be drawn to cities from sources hundreds of miles away.

The exemptions are essential to some energy and mining companies, as the drilling companies maintain that in some areas, there are few alternatives to oil and gas drilling waste being injected into porous rock that also contains water. Uranium miners said their processes work by prompting chemical reactions that separate minerals within the aquifers.

ProPublica said state regulators in Texas and Wyoming could not recall a single application for exemption that had ever been turned down by the EPA.

Most aquifer exemptions are held by smaller, independent oil companies, ProPublica concluded, but some are also held by such multinationals as Chevron, Exxon and EnCana.

ProPublica said the biggest problem is that the EPA’s criteria for evaluating applications are outdated, and were last revised nearly three decades ago. In the meantime, water treatment technology has evolved, and the value and scarcity of fresh water has changed.

A widely followed report earlier this year from the Energy Institute of the University of Texas concluded there was little or no evidence that hydraulic fracturing contaminates shale groundwater. But it was subsequently withdrawn by the university, according to The Globe and Mail, after it was revealed the author had a conflict of interest because he was on the board of Plains Exploration and Production, an energy company.

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