EPA to consider renewing produced water discharge permits on Wind River Reservation

Jul 19, 2013

Dirty water from the oil wells flows through oil-caked pipes into a settling pit where trucks vacuum off the oil. A net covers the pit to keep out birds and other wildlife. Streams of this wastewater flow through the reservation and join natural creeks and rivers.
Credit Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking public comments on the extension of several water discharge permits on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The EPA is looking at renewing existing permits that allow companies to pump waste water from oil and gas fields to the surface on the Reservation. The produced water exemption allows this practice only in the arid West. In general, state agencies have tighter regulations than the EPA about what can be pumped to the surface, but tribal land is under the EPA’s jurisdiction.    

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – or PEER – Executive Director Jeff Ruch says that in the past decade, the increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has resulting in more chemicals being present in produced water,  but he says those chemicals aren’t being accounted for in the permits.   

“The purpose of the water is that it’s supposed to be good enough for wildlife and livestock to drink,” says Ruch. “And the original idea was this was all natural water; what was being pumped up was basically water that was underground, and it may have some elements in it, but for the most part it was good enough for these purposes. The situation has changed, but EPA’s interpretation and oversight hasn’t kept pace.” 

EPA spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool says the permits do not indicate whether the released water would or would not contain fracking chemicals, and said she did not know whether the EPA would look into that. Ruch says that’s part of the problem. He says the issue was brought to PEER by EPA employees frustrated with the agency’s lack of action in assuring the permits are following the agency’s own rules. The comment period closes August 9th.