Asleep at the Wheel: EPA Looks the Other Way as Oil and Gas Companies Dump Radioactive Wastewater


Guess who turns up as a double-talking, industry-coddling government bureaucrat in the latest installment of the New York Times “natural gas pollution” series? That’s right, our friend Carol M. Browner, the White House energy advisor of “the vast majority of oil is gone” fame, who has avoided getting fired by cleverly announcing her resignation – and then simply not leaving.

In New Orleans, where we embrace the Jazz Funeral idea of “gone but not forgotten,” Ms. Browner is mostly forgotten, but not gone.

Research is seldom kind to Ms. Browner. After her “Mission Accomplished” moment in service to BP, independent scientists quickly proved her wrong – often by citing the same report she was spinning. When it comes to natural gas regulation, we at least find consistency in her pandering to industry.

Times reporter Ian Urbina, who is authoring the series, quotes Ms. Browner from a “60 Minutes” report in 1997 as calling for congressional action and explaining exemptions for toxic waste for the oil and natural gas extraction industries: “…whatever comes out of the ground, you don’t have to test it, you don’t have to understand what’s in it, you can dump it anywhere…that’s how big the loophole is…”

And yet, Mr. Urbina notes, Ms. Browner “…has also strongly supported natural gas drilling over the years. For example, she helped ensure in 1995 that hydrofracking would not be covered by certain parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Look, the Times series has done well to illustrate that we have, in effect, no regulation of the oil and gas industries. We can talk about new regulation, but it’s clear that nobody is enforcing the laws now. We can talk about studies, but government scientists are shackled by politics and Big Oil money.

Reports Mr. Urbina: “More than a quarter-century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as E.P.A. studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope and important findings have been removed.”

For example, the EPA last year asked “…for a moratorium on the gas-drilling technique known as hydrofracking in the New York City watershed, according to internal documents, but the advice was removed from the publicly released letter sent to New York.”

Other documents unearthed by Mr. Urbina “…show that the agency dropped some plans to model radioactivity in drilling wastewater being discharged by treatment plants into rivers upstream from drinking water intake plants…”

As I’ve noted before, radiation is a huge energy-extraction issue. It has brought communities to their knees. Go to places like Martha, Kentucky or Smackover, Arkansas and see what the future of these communities looks like – soaring cancer rates, contaminated landscapes and state officials who refuse to make energy companies live up to their legal obligations.

Maybe the best thing about Mr. Urbina’s recent reporting is that it veers away from the narrative that all this is just a lack of “laws.” Nope, what we have here is a good old-fashioned case of the the enforcers being bought off.

“The bottom line is that under the Clean Water Act, dilution is not the solution to pollution,” one enforcement lawyer says in a document obtained by the Times. “Sewage treatment plants are legally obligated to treat, not dilute, the waste… these plants are breaking the law. Everyone is looking the other way.”

For more information on “fracking” and related radiation issues, see our new Facebook page:

Here’s the link to the Times story, but if you can get your hands on a print copy, the graphics and images are worth the effort:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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