The methods used for oil and natural gas drilling are controversial enough. But activists have pointed out that oil and gas drilling have a nasty side effect: pollution of the earth with toxic wastewater. Due to the fact that wastewater disposal regulations are almost non-existent, chemicals are continuously dumped into areas that will pose direct threats to human health - in fact, such incidents have been occurring since the 1960s.
One disturbing example of the toxicity that can occur with poor regulatory measures lies in Rosharon, Texas. In 2003, two trucks there backed up toward an injection well site used for disposal of fracking chemicals. As they unloaded gallons of the substance, it released a vapor of unstable, flammable materials. When one of the trucks backfired, it let out a spark that ignited the toxic cloud. Flames soon engulfed the entire site, and three workers died as a result, while four more landed in the hospital with extremely severe burns. That day's events succeeded only in polluting the atmosphere and costing the lives of innocent working people.
Subject to less control
That site was a "Class 2 well," which meant that it was subject to less control and scrutiny, thanks to regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the past 30 years. Essentially, poisonous waste obtained from gas or oil drilling is now no longer subject to the same rules as waste from factories. It doesn't help that there are now over 150,000 "Class 2" wells across 33 states, all of which come receive little to no inspection, according to well inspection records analyzed by investigative news organization ProPublica.
Without tight regulation, the method of disposing waste from drilling becomes an honor system, where companies are simply expected to report what they are pumping into the ground, the condition of their wells, and whether they are breaking any rules. A three-year examination period - part of ProPublica's analysis - found more than 1,000 cases in which drillers knowingly disposed of wastewater inappropriately - often where it could leak and get into drinking water. There were 140 cases, moreover, of operators injecting waste illegally or with no permit.
"Class 2 wells constitute a serious problem," remarked geoscientist John Apps, who works as an injection expert with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "The risk to water? I think it's high, partially because of the enormous number of these wells and the fact that they are not regulated with the same degree of conscientiousness."
Passed off as salt water
At the Rosharon site, further investigation by the EPA uncovered a plot by the Texas Oil and Gathering company to pass off dangerous petroleum refining plant chemicals as salt water from drilling. The scheme would save the company money by allowing them to get rid of the poison in a deregulated "Class 2" environment, rather than the more stringent rules that actually apply to the material. The company's owner and operations manager were convicted of conspiracy to dump illegal waste and violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
William Miller, who had been the EPA's chief investigator on the case, noted, "If you can get the stuff down the well, how is anyone ever going to know what it was? There's no way to recover it. It's an easy way to commit a crime and not have any evidence left of it afterwards."
The energy industry and regulators also attempt to create a gap between Class 1 and Class 2 substances by referring to the latter as "salt water," even though the EPA confirmed that drilling waste typically contains dangerous "concentrations of solvents, acids, and other hazardous wastes."
In typical cases of companies circumventing the Class 2 rules that exist, the irresponsible operators often receive little more than violation notices, or modest fines. And that's only for the ones who are caught.
"Regulators don't have real good control over everything that goes on in the regulated community," said Miller. "It requires a lot of self-reporting, and that requires honest people."
Mario Salazar, a former senior technical advisor to the EPA who did 25 years of work with its injection regulation program, added, "There are not enough people to look at how these wells are drilled; to witness whether what [companies] tell you they are doing is in fact what they are doing."
Dumping not new
But chemical dumping is a problem that is not at all new, and which results in unknowable - but disastrous - consequences for future generations. Perhaps a fine example is present in this writer's home state of New Jersey, where recent tests were conducted on soil from public parks in the northeastern part of the state, including Teaneck, Edgewater, and North Haledon. Results uncovered toxic contaminants that have been hidden beneath these areas for decades.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has identified 22,000 confirmed contaminated sites, and about 6,000 have been cleaned up over the last two years - although the state DEP itself has been corrupt in its practices in the past.
Waste-dumping, experts say, has to be strictly regulated and dealt with in the here and now, or the end result will be incidents like those seen in New Jersey, where investigators are unlikely to find the culprits behind toxic dumpings committed decades prior, which makes it impossible to make the companies responsible provide funding for a cleanup.
"It's the equivalent of a cold case," said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. "There is not much you can do."
Now, environmentalists are calling for stricter monitoring not only of Class 2 materials, but of all waste dumping in general. One proposal calls for random checking and testing of trucks driving along roads, carrying soil or wastewater.
"It's like the drug testing of athletes," offered Bill Wolfe, the N.J. representative for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit environmental protection organization. "If dumpers know they might get caught and know the penalty is high, they won't do it."
Photo: This is what was left of a tanker truck in Rosharon, Texas after it exploded and killed three workers. ProPublica.org, courtesy of the Chemical Safety Board