Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground.
No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.
There are growing signs they were mistaken.
Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water.
In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation's most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami's drinking water.
There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.
Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves — from which most Americans get their drinking water — remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground.
But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.
"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."
The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells — more holes punched in the ground — are changing the earth's geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.
"There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth,' said Stefan Finsterle, a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid flows through them. "You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing, so you don't know how it will behave."
A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.