Economy

EPA sued over fracking waste-disposal rules amid worry over earthquakes

Workers tend to a wellhead at a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, in western Colorado, in March 2013.
Workers tend to a wellhead at a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, in western Colorado, in March 2013. AP

Environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday to force new regulations on the disposal of waste generated by hydraulic fracturing.

The injection of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater from fracking into underground wells has been linked to numerous earthquakes in Kansas and several other states.

The suit calls for the EPA to update waste disposal rules that are decades old and precede the recent oil and gas boom made possible by fracking and horizontal drilling techniques.

The plaintiffs, which include the Environmental Integrity Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in their complaint that the EPA has abandoned its obligation to revise federal waste-disposal guidelines “to keep up with changes in industry practice and advances in understanding about public health and environmental risks.”

The injection of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater from fracking into underground wells has been linked to numerous earthquakes in Kansas and several other states.

EPA regulations, the groups wrote, “are outdated, contain generic provisions that do not specifically address the modern oil and gas industry, and fail to adequately protect against potential harm to human health and the environment resulting from oil and gas wastes.”

The groups also showed concern about an increasing number of earthquakes related to fracking. “One impact of this increased use of injection wells is the occurrence of earthquakes due to ‘induced seismicity,’ ” the complaint says.

Without stronger guidance, it says, states have free rein to set their own requirements, and oil and gas companies can shop for states with the least stringent standards in which to do business.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, names EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as the defendant and says she failed to uphold her duties under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That 1976 law governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste.

The EPA and the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry group, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In a one-year seismic forecast, the U.S. Geological Survey said north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have a similar earthquake damage risk to parts of California.

Adam Kron, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA needed to follow through.

“Each well now generates millions of gallons of wastewater and hundreds of tons of solid wastes, and yet EPA’s inaction has kept the most basic, inadequate rules in place,” Kron said in a statement. “The public deserves better than this.”

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey noted a dramatic increase in earthquakes in the central and eastern United States and said its studies “have shown a strong connection” between deep injections of fluids and increased earthquakes.

The USGS said there was an average of 21 quakes of magnitude 3 or greater from 1973 to 2008. From 2009 to 2013, it recorded an average of 99 such quakes a year. In 2014 alone, there were 659.

In a one-year seismic forecast, the USGS said north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now had earthquake-damage risks similar to parts of California.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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