US government waives pollution laws for 1,500 underground water supplies
The Environmental Protection Agency has granted some energy and mining companies permission to pollute underground water supplies across the US, according to an investigation by ProPublica.
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"Aquifer Exemptions identify those waters that do not currently serve as a source of drinking water and will not serve as a source of drinking water in the future and, thus, do not need to be protected," an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email statement. "The process of exempting aquifers includes steps that minimize the possibility that future drinking water supplies are endangered."Skip to next paragraph
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Yet EPA officials say the agency has quietly assembled an unofficial internal task force to re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies. The agency's spokesperson declined to give details on the group's work, but insiders say it is attempting to inventory exemptions and to determine whether aquifers should go unprotected in the future, with the value of water rising along with demand for exemptions closer to areas where people live.
Advances in geological sciences have deepened regulators' concerns about exemptions, challenging the notion that waste injected underground will stay inside the tightly drawn boundaries of the exempted areas.
"What they don't often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will," said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it's difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property."
The Safe Drinking Water Act explicitly prohibits injection into a source of drinking water, and requires precautions to ensure that oil and gas and disposal wells that run through them are carefully engineered not to leak.
Areas covered by exemptions are stripped of some of these protections, however. Waste can be discarded into them freely, and wells that run through them need not meet all standards used to prevent pollution. In many cases, no water monitoring or long-term study is required.
The recent surge in domestic drilling and rush for uranium has brought a spike in exemption applications, as well as political pressure not to block or delay them, EPA officials told ProPublica.
"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."
Many of the exemption permits, records show, have been issued in regions where water is needed most and where intense political debates are underway to decide how to fairly allocate limited water resources.
In drought-stricken Texas, communities are looking to treat brackish aquifers beneath the surface because they have run out of better options and several cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are considering whether to build new desalinization plants for as much as $100 million apiece.