Loophole Lets Toxic Oil Water Flow Over Indian Land
The air reeks so strongly of rotten eggs that tribal leader Wes Martel hesitates to get out of the car at an oil field on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. He already has a headache from the fumes he smelled at another oil field.
Martel is giving me a tour of one of a dozen oil and gas fields on the reservation. These operations have the federal government's permission to dump wastewater on the land — so much that it creates streams that flow into natural creeks and rivers. And this water contains toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens and radioactive material, according to documents obtained by NPR through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The fumes hitting Martel's nose are hydrogen sulfide, which can be deadly. So Martel makes sure the wind is at his back before walking over to a pit the size of several tennis courts. Pipes are emptying dirty brown water that came up from oil wells into the pit, which is completely covered in goopy black oil.
The oil is supposed to float to the surface, and then a truck will vacuum it up. Any solid stuff should fall on the bottom of the pit, before the water rushes out and forms a stream. But there are still chemicals in the water — some from the earth, some from the oil, and some the companies add to make the oil flow faster.
About a half-mile from the pit, Martel stops the car on a bridge over that stream of murky gray water. A shiny film covers the water in some places.
"I wish a lot of people could see this," says Martel, the vice chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, the tribal government. "This is something that's going on in the reservation: This don't look too cool."
In most of the country, this would be illegal. Most oil fields reinject wastewater far underground, where it cannot cause harm.
So why is this wastewater being released into a desert wilderness of sagebrush-covered foothills and sandstone cliffs that blaze with reds and oranges?
The few cows grazing nearby provide a clue.
"You can see the tracks into the water here," says Martel. "This is one of their watering holes."
Inside EPA, Distress Over Dumping Loophole
Without the wastewater, this area would be bone dry most of the year.
In the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was banning oil companies from dumping their wastewater, ranchers, especially in Wyoming, made a fuss. They argued that their livestock needs water, even dirty water.
So the EPA made an exception, a loophole, for the arid West. If oil companies demonstrate that ranchers or wildlife use the water, the companies can release it.
Off the reservation, Western states get to decide what oil companies must do with wastewater; over time, states' rules have become stricter than the EPA's. Some states have all but outlawed dumping.
But on the Wind River Reservation, the EPA controls whether companies can release wastewater on a case-by-case basis.
The EPA refused multiple requests for interviews, but in a statement, the agency said it was evaluating the permits it gives some of the companies to expel this water on the reservation.
"EPA is reviewing new information associated with these permits and intends to meet with the Tribes in upcoming weeks to discuss next steps," the statement reads.
The responses to NPR's two Freedom of Information Act requests include emails between staffers, correspondence with the companies, results of water-quality tests, the permits, and documents justifying each permit. Most of this information had not been public before.
The documents show hints of mutiny inside the EPA. Some EPA staffers clearly are appalled by the wastewater releases.
One wrote in an email to colleagues: "Can we get together and discuss a strategic approach for sending our message of concern? I have attached pictures of this ridiculousness."
Another staffer warns that the chemicals in the water could have "irrevocable human health and environmental impacts."
The documents also show recent detective work that some EPA staffers did to try to figure out what chemicals companies are putting in the water. Their research reveals that some of the waste streams sometimes include chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, an engineering technique designed to increase the flow of wells. They also include chemicals whose warning labels clearly state "toxic to aquatic organisms," "prevent material from entering sewers or waterways," and warnings about cancer and birth defects at low levels.
The documents suggest that at least some people inside the EPA are advocating for stricter rules. But much of this debate has been kept secret. The EPA refused to give NPR 757 documents about the loophole, claiming they can be kept secret because they are between the EPA and its attorneys or among EPA staffers.
'We Should Know Better By Now'
Experts, including scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, say it's very rare for oil field water to be released into drainages or streams because it nearly always contains harmful chemicals.
"It's a very uncommon situation in the United States and, I believe, most of the rest of the world," said John Veil, a retired wastewater expert at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, who now works as a consultant.
In one analysis that Veil did for Argonne, he found that 98 percent of the water that companies pump up with oil is reinjected deep underground. Veil says it's usually far too salty to discharge.
Some scientists were alarmed when they learned about the oil field wastewater releases, especially given that it is happening on tribal land.
"I was shocked when I heard this," says Rob Jackson, a Duke University environmental scientist. "I was very surprised this was allowed. It's just something that we should know better by now. We should know that dumping our waste onto the surface of the ground is a bad solution."
Other experts agreed that the chemicals in the water raise concerns. However, some scientists, including staffers from the U.S. Geological Survey, felt uncomfortable commenting for the record without doing their own testing.
Jackson reviewed many of the EPA documents released to NPR, including analyses of the chemicals in the wastewater streams and warning labels for some of the chemical treatments that companies add to the wells.
He stresses that they include hazardous air pollutants such as hydrochloric acid and naphthalene, and carcinogens like benzene and ethyl benzene.
"There are many things in this water that you don't want in the environment or in people's drinking water. You don't need to be a genius to know this is a bad idea," Jackson says.
He urges the EPA to consider the consequences of its policy and how it looks.
"Are we doing something on tribal lands we wouldn't allow somewhere else? I think that's something we have to be asking ourselves."
On The Reservation, Dead Ducklings, Dangerous Fumes
Outside the reservation, Western states decide how oil field waste is handled — and their rules are stricter than the EPA's. For instance, off the reservation, the state of Wyoming requires companies to inject wastewater deep underground and out of harm's way if they've added toxic chemicals to the wells. Other states have set tougher water quality standards that have nearly eliminated these releases.
On the Wind River Reservation, these oil field wastewater streams have flowed for several decades without attracting much interest, even from the tribes, according to Wes Martel and other officials of the two tribes that share the reservation, the Eastern Shoshoni and Northern Arapaho.
"Most of our elders were very trusting, very trusting people. They were glad they had the opportunity to get some revenue. Most of them were just thinking, 'We're being watched over, and things are being taken care of,' " says Martel, 65, who was in tribal government many years ago and was elected two years ago to return to government.
But in 2005, the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission sampled the water downstream of some of the oil fields. Researchers found toxic levels of some chemicals, stretches of streams that were lifeless, and streambeds splotched with black ooze, white crystals and purple growths. They recorded water temperatures as high as 125 degrees, and found dead ducklings, according to a draft report prepared by the tribes' environmental department.
During tours of four of the oil fields earlier this fall, I witnessed visible violations of the plain language of the permits that the EPA gave these companies to discharge wastewater. For instance, I saw streambeds covered in white crystals and rock-like formations below outfall pipes. The permits prohibit visible deposits in the receiving waters or shoreline. They also prohibit any visible foam or sheen — I saw both. At the wastewater discharge site at one oil field, company officials warned us to leave after a few minutes because of the danger of respiratory distress or death from hydrogen sulfide fumes.
The companies were reluctant to talk. One agreed to meet at its oil field on the reservation but backed out the night before. Others failed to return multiple phone calls. Houston-based Marathon Oil Corporation, which runs three oil fields on the reservation, agreed to an interview but refused to be recorded.
"As far as I know, there has never been concerns and opposition for the quality of the water that I'm aware about," says Bob Whisonant, Rocky Mountain operations manager for Marathon Oil, which has three oil fields on the reservation.
Whisonant stresses that the water from his oil fields meets EPA's requirements.
"We're really fortunate within Wyoming that the water is extremely fresh, very suitable for livestock and agriculture purposes. That's why we're able to discharge," Whisonant says.
But the EPA's permits, which are reissued every several years, tell a different story. Even the state of Wyoming, which is known to be pro-industry, questioned the fact that the EPA's requirements didn't seem to protect aquatic life. The EPA's response was that the tribes had not adopted their own water quality standards.
The EPA permits acknowledge that oil field water may not meet the agency's own water quality criteria.
The agency requires only minimal water testing at most of the oil fields, and it does not do its own testing to verify the companies' claims; nor does it sample water quality in the streams receiving the wastewater.
In 2007, the EPA required one company to test aquatic animals to see if they'd die in the water flowing from one oil field — it's a standard test of water quality known as whole effluent toxicity. The minnows and bugs in the sample died within an hour. The EPA asked the company to figure out what was killing the animals and propose remedies, but it let the company go on releasing the water for years. Five years later, the company, Marathon, says it is waiting for the EPA to OK a plan to lower high levels of sulfide in the water.
Wes Martel says he's been pushing the EPA to thoroughly study the wastewater and then require the companies to purify it or inject it underground.
He worries about water quality and wildlife — and about food safety, too. Oil field water abounds on the reservation, and the cows that graze there will eventually end up on dinner plates.
"So it really makes you wonder: What impacts is this having on not only aquatic life, but our wildlife?" Martel says.
"You've got to wonder, what types of chemicals are those beef retaining? And when that goes to the slaughterhouse, what's in your steak?"
Ranchers Still Want The Water
But Eastern Shoshone member Darwin Griebel, one of a handful of ranchers whose livestock use the oil field water, pooh-poohs Martel's concerns.
"Animals drink it. People aren't going to drink it. Hell with the quality of the water," says Griebel.
Griebel has known Martel for nearly 60 years, since they were in elementary school and slept over at each others' houses. But he says they don't agree on this issue.
Griebel says his cows haven't suffered health problems from drinking the water, and the impurities clear up after the streams have run for a while. (The tribes' water study backs up that idea: Concentrations of various harmful chemicals tend to decrease the farther you get from the oil fields.)
What's most concerning to Griebel is that the water has been crucial to his family's business for generations. Without it, he says: "There would be no water for the cows. There would be no water for the deer, the antelope. Nothing. It would put us out of business is what it would do."
But Martel says that if the EPA does not put a stop to this, the tribes will step in.
If the oil companies say that reinjecting or cleaning the water would be so expensive that it would no longer be profitable to pump oil, Martel knows what his response will be: "Good riddance."
"We'll take it over ourselves and do it right," he says.
Martel dreams of putting tribal companies in charge of their oil fields. Then the tribes would get all the profits, instead of just the royalties the companies pay them. They'd also be able to protect water quality for future generations.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
NPR has obtained internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency that show that the agency has long been allowing oil companies to release polluted water on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Millions of gallons every month create streams of this water, and it ends up in natural rivers.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren is joining us to talk about the documents. And, Elizabeth, to start, what's going on here?
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Well, the federal government actually banned this kind of dumping in the 1970s, but they made an exception, a loophole for the arid West. And I learned about this recently. It surprised me, so I put in some Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA to try to learn more.
CORNISH: So what did find in the documents?
SHOGREN: Well, what I found out is that there are some staffers at the EPA who are trying to figure out what's in this water. And they're learning it has some nasty stuff in it. There's some toxic chemicals and carcinogens and radioactive material. But there's a lot we don't know about the EPA's thinking. They kept 750 documents from us, and they wouldn't let me speak with anybody. So I felt like I really had to go to the Wind River Reservation to understand what's going on.
CORNISH: You actually went there. I mean, did you see this water? How much water are we talking about?
SHOGREN: Yes. One of the things that shocked me is how much water - it's literally small rivers of this water in the reservation in some places. And what I did expect is that I wouldn't want to take a sip of this water, but what I didn't expect is that it would be dangerous to even stand next to it. And that's where I'm going to start my story.
CORNISH: I'm with one of the tribal leaders, Wes Martel. He's a fit 65-year-old with a long graying ponytail. And he's taking me out to show me this water.
Ooh. Ooh, can you smell that?
WES MARTEL: Yeah.
MARTEL: That's why I'm hesitating in getting out here.
SHOGREN: We pulled up next to a big black pit. The air reeks of rotten eggs. Martel tells me it's hydrogen sulfide. It can be deadly. So before we get out of the car, we make sure the wind is at our backs. Martel takes me over to the pit.
This is like about a football field size, right?
MARTEL: Probably, three or four tennis courts maybe.
SHOGREN: The whole pit is covered with goopy black oil. There are these big pipes. Brown wastewater from oil wells is gushing out of them into the pit.
It's so much water that it creates those streams. Half a mile away, we stop the car on a bridge over this stream of wastewater.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
SHOGREN: Does that look natural to you?
MARTEL: No way. Just that color. When a stream is healthy, it's green. This is not green.
SHOGREN: It's murky gray. In some places, there's a shiny film on the surface.
MARTEL: I wish a lot of people could just see this and - see, this is something that's going on on the reservation. This don't look too cool.
SHOGREN: Now, in most of the country, this would not be allowed. So why is it allowed here on the Wind River Reservation? It's beautiful here.
SHOGREN: You've got big sandstone hills that blaze with reds and oranges. Other than the oil wells, it's just desert wilderness, mostly empty except for a few cows. And these cows are supposedly the reason why oil companies get to do this.
MARTEL: You can just see their tracks right down - in that water. This is one of their watering holes.
SHOGREN: Without this water, this area would be bone-dry most of the year. Back in the 1970s, the EPA was banning this kind of dumping. But ranchers, especially here in Wyoming, fought back. They said their cows need this water, any water, even if it's dirty.
We're standing on the other side of the bridge where the stream is rushing out of big corrugated pipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
SHOGREN: Wes Martel thinks this can't be good.
MARTEL: Well, you know, especially this volume of water, and this is constant. So it really makes you wonder what kind of impact is this having on not only aquatic life but our wildlife. And then, you know, you've got to wonder what types of chemicals are those beef retaining. And when that goes to the slaughterhouse, what's in your steak, right?
DARWIN GRIEBEL: Oh, come on, Wes. What difference does it make? Animals drink it. People aren't going to drink it. The hell with the quality of the water.
SHOGREN: That's Darwin Griebel. He's one of a handful of ranchers whose livestock use the water. He's known Martel since they were in elementary school together and slept over at each other's houses. He's talking to me while we're going to pick up some cows that escaped to a neighbor's ranch.
Have you ever noticed any health problems with your animals?
GRIEBEL: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. No. The production water leaves the oil field. By the time it runs probably four, 500 yards, it starts purifying. In fact, when you're in Five Mile Creek, there's fish in there.
SHOGREN: Have you ever noticed anything weird about the water?
SHOGREN: All the kind of the white crystals and stuff?
GRIEBEL: Well, that's right at the start of it. But, you know, after, like I said, after it flows for a while, that's all gone.
SHOGREN: And then I ask Griebel about a suspicion I've had: Do cows really need this water? Or are oil companies just making it up, so they can have a cheaper way to dispose of it?
He tells me, yeah. For generations, his family has depended on this water.
What would it be like without the production water?
GRIEBEL: Then there would be no water for the cows. There would be no water for the deer, the antelope, nothing. It'd put us out of business is what it would do.
SHOGREN: Griebel has got a point. There's a lot of water flowing on the Wind River Reservation. All in all, there are about a dozen different oil fields here with permission to continuously spew out this water.
The water is from deep underground. It gets pumped to the surface with the oil. By the time it's released into streams, most of the oil has been separated out. But there are still chemicals in the water: chemicals from the earth, chemicals from the crude and chemicals that companies add to their wells to maintain them and get the oil to flow faster.
Now, the EPA does require some testing, but for the most part the agency doesn't know exactly what's in the water.
ROB JACKSON: I was shocked when I first heard this.
SHOGREN: Rob Jackson is an environmental scientist at Duke University. He researches the petroleum industry.
JACKSON: I was very surprised that this was allowed. It's just something that we should know better by now. We should know that dumping our wastes onto the surface of the ground is a bad solution.
SHOGREN: Other experts, including scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, say dumping oil field water is rare because it nearly always contains harmful chemicals.
Rob Jackson reviewed many of the documents the EPA gave NPR in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. These documents include analyses of chemicals found in the water and warning labels for treatments the companies put in the wells.
JACKSON: The chemicals that are in this water contain hazardous air pollutants, such as naphthalene and hydrochloric acid, and carcinogens like benzene and ethyl benzene. There are many things in this water that you don't want in the environment or in people's drinking water. You don't need to be a genius to know that this is a bad idea.
SHOGREN: You can tell from reading the internal EPA documents that some EPA staffers are appalled. One staffer refers to what's happening on the Wind River Reservation as, quote, "ridiculousness." Another staffer writes about, quote, "irrevocable human health and environmental impacts."
Duke University's Rob Jackson agrees that the EPA needs to reconsider how this looks and the consequences.
JACKSON: Are we doing something on tribal lands that we wouldn't allow somewhere else? I think that's a question we need to be asking ourselves.
SHOGREN: Off the reservation, the states decide what companies get to do with the water. Their rules are stricter than the EPA's, and some states have virtually outlawed dumping. Most oil companies re-inject this water deep underground where it can't do harm. But on the Wind River Reservation, the EPA has control.
Eastern Shoshone leader Wes Martel believes this problem has escaped scrutiny for so long because the oil fields are remote and on tribal land. Royalties from this oil help support the tribes and their members.
MARTEL: Yeah, most of our elders were very trusting, very trusting people. And they had the opportunity to, you know, get some revenue. And, you know, most of them were just thinking we're being watched over.
SHOGREN: Martel is pushing the EPA to make oil companies clean up this water or put it back underground.
And if the operators say, well, it's too expensive to re-inject it, we're packing up and going away, what would you and your people think about that?
MARTEL: Good riddance. We'll take it over ourselves and do it right.
SHOGREN: Martel dreams of putting tribal companies in charge of their oil fields. Then the tribes would get all the profits instead of just royalties. They'd also be able to protect water quality for future generations.
But the EPA hasn't told the tribes what its plans are. It also refused to give interviews to NPR. But the agency said in a statement that it's evaluating the permission it gives some companies to do this.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.