State injection regulators counter that much drilling-related waste is put in the same geologic formations that produce oil and gas, in which contaminants like benzene naturally occur. The water close to these wells is often already undrinkable, they say, so lesser protections make sense.
According to the EPA's most recent inventory, the number of Class 2 wells is near an all-time high.
Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and California use tens of thousands of Class 2 wells to push out oil and gas or dispose of fracking fluids and "produced" water, as the waste derived from drilling is called. In North Dakota, injection permits have increased tenfold, with more wells being permitted in one month – September 2011 –than is typical in an entire year. New Mexico issued twice as many permits last year as it did in 2007. Ohio injected twice as much waste in 2011 as it did in 2006 and is evaluating applications for dozens of new injection sites. largely for waste exported by Pennsylvania and New York, where such wells are deemed unsafe.
As much as 70 percent of the waste destined for Class 2 facilities would be considered toxic if it were not for the loopholes in the law, according to Wilma Subra, a chemist and activist who sits on the board of STRONGER, a partnership of oil and gas industry representatives and state regulators aimed at bolstering state standards.
Recently, Stark Concerned Citizens, an anti-drilling group, asked Ohio regulators why radioactive materials such as radium weren't identified or disclosed when injected into Class 2 wells.
"The law allows it," Tom Tomastik, a geologist with Ohio's Department of Natural Resources and a national expert on injection well regulation, replied in a Sept. 17 email. "It does not matter what is in it. As long as it comes from the oil and gas field it can be injected."
Well Operators Game Safety Tests
When Carl Weller showed up, shovel in hand, at a Kentucky farm field dotted with injection wells in June 2007, he was acting on a tip. Weller, a contracted EPA injection inspector, was an expert in testing for what regulators call "mechanical integrity," using air pressure to check if wells have leaks or cracks.
Such tests are among the only ways to know whether cement and steel well structures are intact, preventing brine and other chemicals from reaching drinking water.
Using his shovel, Weller dug around the top of a well, unearthing the steel tubing near the surface. A few inches down, he came across an apparatus he had never seen before: A section of high-pressure tubing ran out of the well bore and connected to a three-foot-long section of steel pipe, sealed at both ends. The apparatus appeared designed to divert air pumped into the well into the pipe instead, making the well test as if it were airtight.
"The only reason that I know of that that device would be installed would be to perform a false mechanical integrity test, more than likely because the well itself would not pass," Weller testified in 2009 as part of a case against the well's operator. The EPA did not make Weller available to comment for this article.
When EPA inspectors kept digging, they found the buried devices on 10 more wells.
The case stunned regulators. Weller had been inspecting the site's injection wells, which were used to enhance the recovery of oil, for the better part of a decade, certifying them as safe. After the EPA's discoveries, workers at the company that operated the wells, Roseclare Oil, accused its manager, Daniel Lewis, of having conspired to cheat the tests for much of that time.