In 1975 in Beaumont, Texas, dioxin and a highly acidic herbicide injected underground by the Velsicol Chemical Corp. burned a hole through its well casing, sending as much as five million gallons of the waste into a nearby drinking water aquifer.
Then in August 1984 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., radioactive waste was turned up by water monitoring near a deep injection well at a government nuclear facility.
Regulators raced to catch up. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, establishing a framework for regulating injection. Then, in 1980, the EPA set up the tiered classes of wells and began to establish basic construction standards and inspection schedules. The EPA licensed some state agencies to monitor wells within their borders and handled oversight jointly with others, but all had to meet the baseline requirements of the federal Underground Injection Control program.
Even with stricter regulations in place, 17 states – including Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin -- banned Class 1 hazardous deep well injection.
"We just felt like based on the knowledge that we had at that time that it was not something that was really in the best interest of the environment or the state," said James Warr, who headed Alabama's Department of Environmental Management at the time.
Injection accidents kept cropping up.
A 1987 General Accountability Office review put the total number of cases in which waste had migrated from Class 1 hazardous waste wells into underground aquifers at 10 -- including the Texas and Pennsylvania sites. Two of those aquifers were considered potential drinking water sources.
In 1989, the GAO reported 23 more cases in seven states where oil and gas injection wells had failed and polluted aquifers. New regulations had done little to prevent the problems, the report said, largely because most of the wells involved had been grandfathered in and had not had to comply with key aspects of the rules.
Noting four more suspected cases, the report also suggested there could be more well failures, and more widespread pollution, beyond the cases identified. "The full extent to which injected brines have contaminated underground sources of drinking water is unknown," it stated.
The GAO concluded that most of the contaminated aquifers could not be reclaimed because fixing the damage was "too costly" or "technically infeasible."
Faced with such findings, the federal government drafted more rules aimed at strengthening the injection program. The government outlawed certain types of wells above or near drinking water aquifers, mandating that most industrial waste be injected deeper.
The agency also began to hold companies that disposed of hazardous industrial waste to far stiffer standards. To get permits to dispose of hazardous waster after 1988, companies had to prove – using complex models and geological studies -- that the stuff they injected wouldn't migrate anywhere near water supplies for 10,000 years. They were already required to test for fault zones and to conduct reviews to ensure there were no conduits for leakage, such as abandoned wells, within a quarter-mile radius. Later, that became a two-mile minimum radius for some wells.