Green groups set to sue EPA over drilling waste rules

By Ellen M. Gilmer | 08/26/2015 01:06 PM EDT

A coalition of environmental groups is planning to sue U.S. EPA over what they consider to be lax regulation of oil and gas drilling waste.

A coalition of environmental groups is planning to sue U.S. EPA over what they consider to be lax regulation of oil and gas drilling waste.

The Environmental Integrity Project, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks and four other groups today gave notice that they intend to sue EPA for failing to update drilling waste regulations under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976.

The contention stems from a decades-old congressional exemption of certain oil and gas wastes from RCRA’s hazardous waste requirements. In 1988, EPA affirmed the exemption of produced water, drilling fluids, drill cuttings and other materials from the hazardous waste program but recommended enhancing other avenues of oversight by tailoring the law’s solid waste requirements for oil and gas production.


Solid waste rules tailored for the oil and gas industry were never established, and the environmental groups say EPA has failed to review of the program, despite a RCRA requirement that the agency review waste rules every three years and revise when necessary.

"As the fracking boom has exploded, so has the amount of waste it produces," NRDC attorney Matthew McFeeley said during a press call today. "So you can imagine how the scale of the problem has multiplied."

Drilling waste, which often includes a combination of produced water, fracking fluid and other substances, is routinely injected into disposal wells or stored in wastewater pits or tanks, and is sometimes sent to landfills or spread on roads for de-icing or dust control.

"We’re asking that EPA finally do what it found to be necessary back in 1988," EIP attorney Adam Kron said in a statement. "The oil and gas industry has grown rapidly since then, and yet EPA has repeatedly shirked its duties for nearly three decades. The public deserves better protection than this."

Steve Everley, senior adviser for Energy In Depth, criticized those claims, accusing the green groups of exaggerating the risk of contamination from oil and gas waste.

"The supposed harms that these groups are citing are the same theoretical risks that they’ve been screaming about for years," he said in an email, adding that states have taken the lead on regulating disposal wells by crafting state rules that go beyond federal requirements.

If EPA doesn’t act to update the RCRA solid waste rules for oil and gas within 60 days, the environmental groups will ask a court to set a deadline. A similar petition from environmental groups in 2012 resulted in a court-ordered deadline for the agency to update coal ash disposal regulations, which were finalized late last year.

Other groups in the coalition are the San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, Responsible Drilling Alliance, and Center for Health, Environment and Justice.