Poisoned Wells

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Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water, according to a ProPublica 12/12/12 article.

“In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water. EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.

You are sacrificing these aquifers,” said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. “By definition, you are putting pollution into them. … If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go.”

As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted. We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect…

The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be. Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.

In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company’s application.

The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined…

“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.”


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