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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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Ultimately, much of the responsibility for meeting EPA standards falls to companies themselves. Some operators routinely exceed the minimum requirements of injection regulations, says Hughbert Collier, who runs a Texas environmental engineering firm that consults with injection well operators. They conduct their own integrity tests every year and make sure employees visit well sites once a month.

But operators inclined to cut corners have little to hold them back.

“What most people would be surprised about is that regulators don’t have real good control over everything that goes on in the regulated community,” said Miller, the former EPA criminal investigator in Texas. “Most of our environmental law requires self-reporting and that requires honest people.”

When violations are identified – such as the 140 times waste was illegally injected and noted in the regulatory reports – the consequences can be minimal, and only in rare cases do transgressions rise to the level of criminal prosecution. In the three years of national data reviewed by ProPublica, which included more than 24,000 formal notices of violations, only one case was referred to criminal investigators.

Usually, violations result in citations or informal warnings. If operators do not address violations, then modest fines may be levied; in some cases, wells are temporarily shut down. There is no central source of information on the size of fines, but an audit of  Louisiana’s injection program provides a glimpse: In 2011, the state collected an average of $158 for each violation.

After three deaths, two federal worker safety investigations and a criminal prosecution, few injection sites nationwide received as much regulatory scrutiny as those in Rosharon, Texas.  Yet, despite all the attention, the wells there later failed on the most basic level.  

On Feb. 17, 2010, thousands of gallons of waste that had been deposited into these wells  gurgled to the surface in what the Railroad Commission described as a “breakout.” Materials injected far below the earth had managed to migrate back up to the surface, perhaps through an old well missed by regulators.  

As of this June, investigators were still analyzing whether the chemicals injected underneath the site had reached water supplies.

Jesse Nankin contributed research for this report.


Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
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