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The Trillion-Gallon Loophole: Shockingly Lax Rules for Drillers that Inject Pollutants Into the Earth

Despite huge dangers, injection wells have proliferated because they are the fastest, cheapest way to take care of industrial waste.

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As much as 70 percent of the waste destined for Class 2 facilities would be considered toxic if it were not for the loopholes in the law, according to Wilma Subra, a chemist and activist who sits on the board of  STRONGER, a partnership of oil and gas industry representatives and state regulators aimed at bolstering state standards.

Recently, Stark Concerned Citizens, an anti-drilling group, asked Ohio regulators why radioactive materials such as radium weren’t identified or disclosed when injected into Class 2 wells.

“The law allows it,” Tom Tomastik, a geologist with Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources and a national expert on injection well regulation, replied in a Sept. 17 email. “It does not matter what is in it. As long as it comes from the oil and gas field it can be injected.”

Well Operators Game Safety Tests

When Carl Weller showed up, shovel in hand, at a Kentucky farm field dotted with injection wells in June 2007, he was acting on a tip.  Weller, a contracted EPA injection inspector, was an expert in testing for what regulators call “mechanical integrity,” using air pressure to check if wells have leaks or cracks. 

Such tests are among the only ways to know whether cement and steel well structures are intact, preventing brine and other chemicals from reaching drinking water.

Using his shovel, Weller dug around the top of a well, unearthing the steel tubing near the surface. A few inches down, he came across an apparatus he had never seen before: A section of high-pressure tubing ran out of the well bore and connected to a three-foot-long section of steel pipe, sealed at both ends. The apparatus appeared designed to divert air pumped into the well into the pipe instead, making the well test as if it were airtight. 

“The only reason that I know of that that device would be installed would be to perform a false mechanical integrity test, more than likely because the well itself would not pass,” Weller testified in 2009 as part of a case against the well’s operator. The EPA did not make Weller available to comment for this article.

When EPA inspectors kept digging, they found the buried devices on 10 more wells.

The case stunned regulators. Weller had been inspecting the site’s injection wells, which were used to enhance the recovery of oil, for the better part of a decade, certifying them as safe.  After the EPA’s discoveries, workers at the company that operated the wells, Roseclare Oil,  accused its manager, Daniel Lewis, of having conspired to cheat the tests for much of that time.  

In 2009, Lewis  was convicted of a felony charge for gaming the safety tests on Roseclare’s wells and was sentenced to 3 years probation and a $5,000 fine. He maintains his innocence, saying the wells were rigged by his father, who ran the company’s local operations until his death, but said such practices were typical in Kentucky’s oil and gas industry. “I’d say it’s pretty common,” said Lewis, whose probation was commuted in 2011.  “But it’s not something people go around talking about either.”

From Lewis’ perspective, injection well operators sometimes have little choice but to try to fool inspectors. Many wells are decades old and were drilled before the current regulations were written. Some are decrepit, their cement aging and cracked. They also can’t be easily – or cheaply – repaired.

Lewis, who is now a part-owner of Roseclare and continues to run its operations, said that before wells were due for EPA inspections he would pretest them himself. If one failed, he’d enter problem-solving mode, prepping the site for the EPA’s arrival. Two of his employees testified that he ordered them to fabricate and install the diverters.

 
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