"The UIC program has been flat funded for years," said Dan Jarvis, the field operations manager for Utah's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. "With more manpower, obviously you put them on the ground and you're going to have better compliance. Our field people are some of the greatest guys going, but they are overworked."
The EPA declined to disclose the operating budget for regional offices that monitor waste wells under federal jurisdiction or oversee state injection programs. Documents show, however, that in 2011 the agency suspended its travel budget for visits to some of the states that have the largest injection programs, including Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.
"Do you think we are doing more now than we were doing 30 years ago? No, there is no money," said Salazar, the former EPA injection expert. "There are not enough people to know what is going on. It is the ideal storm for industry. Less and less people, more and more things that the EPA has to do."
Ultimately, much of the responsibility for meeting EPA standards falls to companies themselves. Some operators routinely exceed the minimum requirements of injection regulations, says Hughbert Collier, who runs a Texas environmental engineering firm that consults with injection well operators. They conduct their own integrity tests every year and make sure employees visit well sites once a month.
But operators inclined to cut corners have little to hold them back.
"What most people would be surprised about is that regulators don't have real good control over everything that goes on in the regulated community," said Miller, the former EPA criminal investigator in Texas. "Most of our environmental law requires self-reporting and that requires honest people."
When violations are identified – such as the 140 times waste was illegally injected and noted in the regulatory reports – the consequences can be minimal, and only in rare cases do transgressions rise to the level of criminal prosecution. In the three years of national data reviewed by ProPublica, which included more than 24,000 formal notices of violations, only one case was referred to criminal investigators.
Usually, violations result in citations or informal warnings. If operators do not address violations, then modest fines may be levied; in some cases, wells are temporarily shut down. There is no central source of information on the size of fines, but an audit of Louisiana's injection program provides a glimpse: In 2011, the state collected an average of $158 for each violation.
After three deaths, two federal worker safety investigations and a criminal prosecution, few injection sites nationwide received as much regulatory scrutiny as those in Rosharon, Texas. Yet, despite all the attention, the wells there later failed on the most basic level.
On Feb. 17, 2010, thousands of gallons of waste that had been deposited into these wells gurgled to the surface in what the Railroad Commission described as a "breakout." Materials injected far below the earth had managed to migrate back up to the surface, perhaps through an old well missed by regulators.
As of this June, investigators were still analyzing whether the chemicals injected underneath the site had reached water supplies.
From ProPublica.org (find the original story here); reprinted with permission. Jesse Nankin contributed research for this report.