oil barrel in water
Kind of like this, but underground.
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Oil companies: They’re kind of like pet cats, it turns out. They don’t care what you want, they’re only out for themselves, and they love to bury their waste wherever they feel like it. And thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency, they’re able to bury it via aquifer injection at hundreds of sites across the country where the EPA says the water is not “reasonably expected” to be used for drinking.

In some of America’s most drought-stricken communities, this practice is polluting what little drinkable water there is left. A new report from ProPublica digs into the EPA’s spotty record on issuing exemption permits for dumping in the nation’s precious aquifers — starting with the fact that the EPA itself hasn’t kept great records on which permits it has issued at all.

Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water. …

Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.

Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.

In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company’s application.

Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Colorado have been hit with the most pollution exemptions. Those same states are digging deeper to get at cleaner water, looking into pipelines to pump it in from elsewhere, and/or just still drinking the possibly contaminated stuff. Thirsty Texas communities are considering pricey desalination efforts while the EPA has granted upwards of 50 aquifer exemptions throughout that state.

Most of the exemptions have gone to small, independent companies, but you will not be even a tiny bit surprised to learn that multinational energy giants Chevron, Exxon, and EnCana hold 80 of the permits between them.

To the resource industries, aquifer exemptions are essential. Oil and gas drilling waste has to go somewhere and in certain parts of the country, there are few alternatives to injecting it into porous rock that also contains water, drilling companies say. In many places, the same layers of rock that contain oil or gas also contain water, and that water is likely to already contain pollutants such as benzene from the natural hydrocarbons within it.

Similarly, the uranium mining industry works by prompting chemical reactions that separate out minerals within the aquifers themselves; the mining can’t happen without the pollution …

“The energy policy in the U.S. is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium,” said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The political pressure is huge not to slow that down.”

But ProPublica also reports the EPA has “quietly” assembled a task force to reconsider the agency’s policies on aquifer exemptions given the rising value of water.

And at least judging by the EPA’s records as provided to ProPublica, there’s no clear trend of aquifer exemptions being handed out with increasing frequency. Permits took a huge dip in the late ’90s and early ’00s, then rose to about 75 annually, then dipped again last year.