Friday, June 18, 2010

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act


The nearly 270,000 oil and natural gas wells drilled in the West since 1980 have enjoyed an exemption from the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed in 1976 to establish a cradle-to-grave hazardous waste management program (RCRA History). The law sets standards for disclosure and safety in handling hazardous waste, for reducing such waste and for developing non-toxic alternatives (RCRA 2008). In 1988, the EPA and Congress agreed not to apply RCRA to oil and gas wastes, overriding objections from some officials at EPA after the agency had documented 62 cases in which oil and gas wastes had caused damage. Two EPA officials told the Associated Press that the exemption was granted due to industry pressure, a charge that EPA administrators denied (Dixon 1988).

Drilling generates significant volumes of hazardous and toxic waste. Some of the major sources are: hydraulic fracturing fluids in which toxic additives are mixed with large volumes of water; drilling mud, a mixture of clay (bentonite) and water mixed with other toxic additives; and produced water (naturally occurring underground water coming from an oil or gas producing zone that can contain toxic hydrocarbons). The mud is usually stored in a large earthern pit that generally serves as the repository for all the other wastes when the well is drilled and put into production (EPA 2000, OGAP 2005).

These wastes should be stored in lined waste pits but are often dumped on the ground or in unlined pits. Even lined pits can leak, contaminating nearby water. (Epstein and Selber 2002, NMOCD Pit Testing 2007). The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division has identified more than 400 cases statewide of groundwater contamination from oil and gas waste pits (Prukop 2008, Farmington 2008). A 2007 NMOCD study found that rips and tears in pit liners were a common problem. Sampling from 37 pits found 17 substances, including arsenic, benzene, cadmium and mercury, that violated water quality standards (NMOCD Pit Testing 2007).

In June 2008, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division implemented a rule requiring that waste pits be lined and registered with the state and that companies find alternatives when groundwater is within 50 feet of the surface. The rule set forth detailed standards for managing oil and gas wastes (NM Pit Rule 2008). New Mexico governor Bill Richardson recently directed the NMOCD to modify several provisions of the pit rule in response to complaints from some companies that the provisions were burdensome and might cause them to leave New Mexico. (Brunt 2009).

Environmental Working Group

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