From the depths of the earth, or from the surface of the land, Wyoming's water is under the assault of fracking.
The non-profit watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed this week that millions of gallons of toxic fracking wastewater are being dumped by oil and gas companies in and near the western state's Wind River Reservation, water that ends up pumped for wildlife and livestock.
What specific chemicals and how much of them are in that wastewater is not known. PEER states that the EPA granting permits to the oil and gas companies for the surface discharge of the mysterious chemical cocktail even flies in the face of its own regulations requiring it list what's in the fluids to be discharged.
“Under the less than watchful eye of EPA, fracking flowback is dumped into rivers, lakes and reservoirs,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement.
“Gushers of putrid, grayish water encrusted with chemical crystals flood through Wind River into nearby streams,” he added.
This kind of surface disposal is allowed thanks to a 1979 regulation that allows for the discharge of oil and gas waste fluid in the water-thirsty West provided that it is “of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering or other agricultural uses.” But while the fossil fuel companies have changed their practices, the surface disposal rule hasn't changed.
“The more than 30-year old ‘produced water’ exception was intended for naturally occurring fluids and muds from within the geologic formations, not this new generation of powerful chemicals introduced downhole,” explained Ruch.
In his letter to the EPA urging the rejection of new surface discharge permits, Ruch writes:
Not a single permit lists any of the chemicals used during the fracking process. This means that the EPA is in the process of issuing permits without addressing the toxicity of fracking chemicals that may be discharged via produced water.
While there is currently no EPA requirement for a list of fracking chemicals in discharge permits, these chemicals can be extremely dangerous. These chemicals contain known carcinogens, which cause cancer in humans, contaminate water supplies, and destroy the landscape and farmland. Fracking fluids and the chemicals in them are too dangerous to go undisclosed and unregulated in a permit that allows for surface water discharge.
And while the PEER documents focus on Wyoming, Ruch told Common Dreams, "We suspect this is common practice," and, he added, it's been going on for a decade.
Residents in the nearby town of Pavillion have been plagued by health problems they link to fracking for years, and EPA testing found chemicals consistent with the fracking process in samples, linking aquifer contamination to fracking wells. However, the EPA appears to be retreating on that study, ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten reports, and, once again, it's corporate power that may have the loudest voice:
Now the EPA will instead hand the study over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by EnCana, the very drilling company whose wells may have caused the contamination.
Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.
But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.
As President Obama's recent climate speech championed increased reliance on natural gas including the use of fracking, the water contamination problems affected the Wind River Reservation and Pavillion areas may become a familiar, widespread fate.