Toxic Stew

What’s in Fracking Wastewater

March 10, 2015

Toxic Stew: Injection Control Program May Not Protect Groundwater

The disposal of recovered fluids from fracking varies, but most are reported as having gone into Class II injection wells (Table 3). (The U.S. EPA defines several types of injection wells; Class II wells are those used for enhanced oil recovery or disposal of oil and gas waste fluids). Even in the absence of hydraulic fracturing, the oil and gas industry produces significant quantities of wastewater that must be disposed of. The Senate Bill 4 regulations do not address the problems associated with wastewater injection in general or the federal aquifer exemption process, which allows injection of oil and gas wastewater directly into aquifers that will not be used for drinking water. 

California’s Underground Injection Control Program is regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to protect groundwater from contamination. Since 1983, however, U.S. EPA has given the state responsibility for implementing the program, a responsibility shared by the oil and gas division and the Water Resources Control Board. U.S. EPA has turned over UIC Class II programs to a total of 39 states (GAO, 2014). 

Concerns have been raised over the program at both the federal and state level, none more seriously than in California.

In 2011, EPA conducted an audit of the California program, which for the first time revealed that wastewater was being injected into aquifers that could potentially be used for drinking water in the future. The agency called on the oil and gas division to fix the problem. The Division developed an action plan but did little to implement it.

EPA set a final deadline of February 2015 for the state to address the deficiencies, specifically calling for review of injection into 11 aquifers that had mistakenly been treated as exempt from protection because they were unfit for drinking or irrigation. The Division’s response revealed a staggering number of injection wells – a total of 2,553 – that may have illegally been permitted to inject wastewater into protected aquifers (Bohlen and Bishop, 2015).  The Division’s initial response to the audit didn’t come until July 2014, when it ordered the emergency shutdown of those 11 wells, all in Kern County.

In February 2015, the Division responded more fully, revealing that a staggering number of injection wells – a total of 2,553 – may have illegally been permitted to inject wastewater into protected aquifers (Bohlen and Bishop, 2015). The following month, the Division ordered the shutdown of 12 more Kern County injection wells.

The Division told EPA that “approximately 140 of the active wells have been tabbed for immediate review by the State Water Board” because the aquifers are believed to contain potable water. The agency promised that those injection wells will be shut down by October 2015 and it would complete “the phased elimination of new and existing injection into aquifers that have not been approved as exempt by the US EPA by February 15, 2017.” It also promised that it would create a searchable database of injection walls and take other steps to provide “vastly improved data management systems.” The Division concluded:

The severe drought emergency, new regulations for well stimulation with ground water monitoring and other requirements, as well as long overdue revision to the [Underground Injection Control] program, have fundamentally changed how the Division and the State Water Board work together to protect public health and ensure the security of the State’s groundwater resources. We are committed . . . (to) achieve full compliance with the [Safe Drinking Water Act], and we are committed to revising the [Underwater Injection Control] program efficiently, and with public safety as a first priority.
However, the state’s actions still fall short. Waste injection into many of these wells could continue for two full years, and testing drinking water supply wells is not part of the plan. Although the Division now appears to be moving in the right direction, it is inexcusable that years have gone by with no action, during which the situation has reached a state of emergency. It is clear that since the Underground Injection Control program was turned over to the state, the Division has allowed questionable practices that endanger drinking water to continue. The program has been run with little transparency and has ignored its responsibility to protect drinking water and public health.

Similar crises may be looming in other states. In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the EPA had not adequately reviewed emerging risks from injection wells, and that the program may lack “the information necessary to fully protect underground drinking water” (GAO, 2014).

In the United States, groundwater is the source of drinking water used by more than 130 million people. A report last year by the U.S. Geological Survey on more than 6,000 samples from both public supply and domestic wells showed that more than 20 percent contained at least one contaminant at a level that could be a health risk (DeSimone et al, 2014). High quality groundwater is a precious resource that must be protected as the demand for water grows.


Table 3. Reported disposition of recovered well stimulation treatment (WST) fluids in state Public Disclosure Report.

Operator Disposition reported for recovered WST fluids
Aera Energy LLC Class II injection
Breitburn Operating L.P. Class II injection
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Recycled
Occidental of Elk Hills, Inc. Injection
Vintage Production California LLC Went to Santa Clara WWTP

Source: Environmental Working Group, from data reported to DOGGR up to January 5, 2015