New report exposes gaps in Clean Water Act protections from oil and gas wastewater

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Washington, D.C. -- Today Clean Water Action published a first of its kind report evaluating Clean Water Act regulation and oversight of oil and gas wastewater discharges by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and states. The report found significant gaps in scientific knowledge, oversight, and regulation that leaves rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes, including drinking water sources, vulnerable to pollution. The report systematically surveyed permits for produced water discharge across the country and found significant problems with  transparency and data availability. 

“The Clean Water Act set a bold goal to eliminate discharges of pollutants into our nation’s waters. Unfortunately we’re not meeting that goal and this report shows that we are leaving drinking water vulnerable to contamination by oil and gas wastewater,” said report author Delia Mayor. “EPA and states must close the loopholes that allow fossil fuel companies to use our rivers, streams, and wetlands as their dumping grounds.”

This report offers an in-depth look at the regulation and permitting of oil and gas wastewater (also known as produced water) discharges under the Clean Water Act’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs). It identified loopholes in regulations and possible gaps in oversight which leave the public and the environment unprotected.

Clean Water Action found that EPA and state environmental agencies lack the necessary information about which pollutants are present in produced water discharges and their effects on human health and the environment. Findings also show that although most discharges of produced water are prohibited onshore, wastewater containing unknown and often hazardous chemicals may be discharged due to multiple loopholes or exemptions in federal regulation.

This report also exposes that where people live may impact their ability to obtain information about which facilities in their state, tribe or territory are discharging produced water. Only eight states have NPDES permits available online that can be sorted by industry. Permits in other states are either not easily found or not available online. Some states require the equivalent to a Freedom of Information Act to release oil and gas wastewater permits, as does EPA Region 6 which oversees produced water discharge permits for Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Despite these limitations, this report found at least 3 general permits and 668 individual permits, most of them (649) in Wyoming. Other states and tribes where there are active discharges are Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Montana, New York, and the Navajo Nation.

“It shouldn’t be so difficult for people to find out how many oil and gas facilities are discharging produced water,” Mayor continued. “Too many states don’t make these permits available, which leaves the public in the dark about the impacts of produced water discharges to their health and the environment they depend on.”

Clean Water Action is calling on EPA and states to require more disclosure about the chemical characteristics of produced water; address gaps in the science such as developing analytical methods; revise and improve effluent guidelines for oil and gas extraction by closing the loopholes that allow for polluting discharges; and improve state permitting oversight and transparency to make permits easier to find and understand.

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Since our founding during the campaign to pass the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972, Clean Water Action has worked to win strong health and environmental protections by bringing issue expertise, solution-oriented thinking and people power to the table. We will protect clean water in the face of attacks from a polluter friendly Administration. www.cleanwateraction.org

Michael Kelly
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