By Abrahm Lustgarten
On a cold, overcast afternoon in January 2003, two tanker trucks backed up to an injection well site in a pasture outside Rosharon, Texas. There, under a steel shed, they began to unload thousands of gallons of wastewater for burial deep beneath the earth.
The waste – the byproduct of oil and gas drilling – was described in regulatory documents as a benign mixture of salt and water. But as the liquid rushed from the trucks, it released a billowing vapor of far more volatile materials, including benzene and other flammable hydrocarbons.
The truck engines, left to idle by their drivers, sucked the fumes from the air, revving into a high-pitched whine. Before anyone could react, one of the trucks backfired, releasing a spark that ignited the invisible cloud.
Fifteen-foot-high flames enveloped the steel shed and tankers. Two workers died, and four were rushed to the hospital with burns over much of their bodies. A third worker died six weeks later.
What happened that day at Rosharon was the result of a significant breakdown in the nation's efforts to regulate the handling of toxic waste, a ProPublica investigation shows.
The site at Rosharon is what is known as a "Class 2" well. Such wells are subject to looser rules and less scrutiny than others designed for hazardous materials. Had the chemicals the workers were disposing of that day come from a factory or a refinery, it would have been illegal to pour them into that well. But regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the last three decades made it legal to dump similar substances into the Rosharon site – as long as they came from drilling.
Injection wells have proliferated over the last 60 years, in large part because they are the cheapest, most expedient way to manage hundreds of billions of gallons of industrial waste generated in the U.S. each year. Yet the dangers of injection are well known: In accidents dating back to the 1960s, toxic materials have bubbled up to the surface or escaped, contaminating aquifers that store supplies of drinking water.
There are now more than 150,000 Class 2 wells in 33 states, into which oil and gas drillers have injected at least 10 trillion gallons of fluid. The numbers have increased rapidly in recent years, driven by expanding use of hydraulic fracturing to reach previously inaccessible resources.
ProPublica analyzed records summarizing more than 220,000 well inspections conducted between late 2007 and late 2010, including more than 194,000 for Class 2 wells. We also reviewed federal audits of state oversight programs, interviewed dozens of experts and explored court documents, case files, and the evolution of underground disposal law over the past 30 years.
Our examination shows that, amid growing use of Class 2 wells, fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented. State and federal regulators often do little to confirm what pollutants go into wells for drilling waste. They rely heavily on an honor system in which companies are supposed to report what they are pumping into the earth, whether their wells are structurally sound, and whether they have violated any rules.
More than 1,000 times in the three-year period examined, operators pumped waste into Class 2 wells at pressure levels they knew could fracture rock and lead to leaks. In at least 140 cases, companies injected waste illegally or without a permit.
In several instances, records show, operators did not meet requirements to identify old or abandoned wells near injection sites until waste flooded back up to the surface, or found ways to cheat on tests meant to make sure wells aren't leaking.
"The program is basically a paper tiger," said Mario Salazar, a former senior technical advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency who worked with its injection regulation program for 25 years. While wells that handle hazardous waste from other industries have been held to increasingly tough standards, Salazar said, Class 2 wells remain a gaping hole in the system. "There are not enough people to look at how these wells are drilled … to witness whether what they tell you they will do is in fact what they are doing."
Thanks in part to legislative measures and rulemaking dating back to the late 1970s, material from oil and gas drilling is defined as nonhazardous, no matter what it contains. Oversight of Class 2 wells is often relegated to overstretched, understaffed state oil and gas agencies, which have to balance encouraging energy production with protecting the environment. In some areas, funding for enforcement has dropped even as drilling activity has surged, leading to more wells and more waste overseen by fewer inspectors.
"Class 2 wells constitute a serious problem," said John Apps, a leading geoscientist and injection expert who works with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "The risk to water? I think it's high, partially because of the enormous number of these wells and the fact that they are not regulated with the same degree of conscientiousness."
In response to questions about the adequacy of oversight, the EPA, which holds primary regulatory authority over injection wells, reissued a statement it supplied to ProPublica for an earlier article in June.
"Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done," a spokesperson wrote. "EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program."