WASHINGTON, DC – Controversial oil and gas permits allowing surface discharge of fracking fluids into a stream on a Wyoming Indian reservation have been significantly modified. The revisions contained in the wastewater permits now posted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resolve a challenge filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In March 2015, EPA finalized new water discharge permits for nearly a dozen oil fields on or abutting the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming (EPA has Clean Water Act jurisdiction on tribal lands). The following month, PEER appealed the permits to EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board on the grounds that surface disposal of drilling wastewater without even identifying the chemicals in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) fluids, let alone setting effluent limits for the harmful contaminants contained within, violates the Clean Water Act, as well as EPA’s own regulations.
In the West, rig operators are allowed to pump their “produced water” into streams and ponds for consumption by wildlife and livestock. EPA has acted as if this “produced water” exception to the Clean Water Act applies to toxic chemicals introduced “downhole” such as fracking fluids. In a separate, still pending action, PEER is challenging whether surface discharge of fracking fluids should ever be allowed, arguing that fracking fluids are so toxic they violate the requirement that produced water must be “of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering.”
In a mediation before EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board, a settlement led to permit modifications unveiled this week, including –
•Disclosure. The exact mix of fracking chemicals to be used will be disclosed by the operators to the tribes and EPA, and the permit would now set new effluent limits. Heretofore, industry has treated the exact mixture of chemicals used for fracking as a trade secret;
•Segregation. The flowback from each well will be collected on a gallon-per-gallon ratio with the liquids injected downhole. Those collected waters will not be surface released; and Testing. Any flowback not captured in the wake of a fracking event has to be tested for toxicity before it is fed to livestock or wildlife.
•“While these permit modifications are not ideal, these new agreed-upon steps are significant advances in how fracking is regulated,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there is no guarantee that the water quality of Big Horn Draw, a tributary to the Little Wind River where the produced waters are to be discharged, will not be adversely affected. “Like canaries in a coal mine, the ultimate test is whether cattle and deer drinking this water keel over and die.”
The revised permits are available for public comment over the next 30 days.