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Congressional Watch-Dog Warns Fracking Waste Could Threaten Drinking Water

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

The Government Accountability Office says new risks from underground injections of oil and gas waste could harm drinking water supplies, and the EPA needs to step up both oversight and enforcement. The GAO released a study on Monday detailing the EPA’s role in overseeing the nation’s 172,000 wells, which either dispose of oil and gas waste, use “enhanced” oil and gas production techniques, store fossil fuels for later use, or use diesel fuel to frack for gas or oil. These wells are referred to as “class II” underground injection wells and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Oversight of these wells vary by state, with some coming under the regulatory authority of the EPA, including the 1,865 class II wells in Pennsylvania. The GAO faults the EPA for inconsistent on-site inspections and guidance that dates back to the 1980’s. Of the more than 1800 class II wells in Pennsylvania, the GAO reports only 33 percent were inspected in 2012. Some states, including California, Colorado and North Dakota, require monthly reporting on injection pressure, volume and content of the fluid.
As more oil and gas wells across the country generate more waste, the GAO highlights three new risks associated with these wells — earthquakes, high pressure in formations that may have reached their disposal limit, and fracking with diesel.

EPA has tasked the UIC Technical Workgroup with providing technical information to inform states’ decisions about induced seismicity, but plans to address overpressurization of formations and diesel use on a state-by-state basis without requesting assistance from the workgroup. Without similar reviews of other emerging risks, class II programs may not have the information necessary to fully protect underground drinking water.

The report also waved a red flag over cracked cement in the injection wells and inadequately plugged abandoned wells, which could serve as conduits between the toxic fluid and underground drinking water supplies.

When it first developed the UIC program and its regulations, EPA considered, but did not include, monitoring of groundwater for contamination as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of the program and its safeguards.33 Furthermore, the Safe Drinking Water Act does not specifically require groundwater quality monitoring for class II wells. Moreover, EPA guidance notes that, while evidence of the presence or absence of groundwater contamination is important, it cannot serve as the only measure of program effectiveness, and the absence of evidence of contamination does not necessarily prove that contamination has not occurred.

Much of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste water gets shipped to Ohio, since the Keystone state has just seven operating oil and gas waste disposal wells. Since January, the EPA has issued permits for three more waste water injection wells in Clearfield, Elk and Indiana Counties. All are being challenged by local communities. A fourth permit for an injection well in Venango County has received final approval, but is not yet active.
The GAO also faulted the EPA for poor data collection.
Regarding wells fracked with diesel fuel, EPA officials told the GAO that since beginning to monitor these wells, they’ve seen their numbers drop. But it remains unclear how often diesel fuel gets used in oil and gas production. Unlike other fracking chemicals, diesel fuel is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the GAO does not have much faith in the industry’s voluntary reporting website FracFocus:

While several states have begun to require well owners or operators to use a national reporting system called FracFocus to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid that could help states identify hydraulic fracturing operations using diesel fuels, not all states have done this, which means that all operators may not be providing information, and the information available is not complete.41 Furthermore, operators consider some information, such as hydraulic fracturing fluid chemical composition, to be classified business information, which is not subject to public disclosure. Without an assessment of the complete chemical information needed for permitting, such as an assessment by the UIC Technical Workgroup, EPA and the states may not have the chemical disclosure information they need to ensure permits are issued for wells that use diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing.

The GAO recommended the EPA review the risks associated with underground injections.

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