This week the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled “Drinking Water: EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement,” in which the GAO reviews EPA’s oversight of its Underground Injection Control (UIC) class II program. According to the GAO, over 172,000 fluid injection wells used in conjunction with oil and gas production or related disposal/storage activities are subject to regulation under this program and approved state class II programs. The GAO observes, “Because a significant percentage of the population gets its drinking water from underground aquifers, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.” (1).
The GAO’s main findings and recommendations are as follows:
- In the eight state programs reviewed, the existing safeguards for protecting against contamination of underground sources of drinking water do not address certain new risks that have emerged, such as induced seismicity, overpressurization of formations, and use of diesel fuels as chemical additives in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations. GAO recommends tasking the UIC Technical Working Group with reviewing such emerging risks and related safeguards.
- EPA does not consistently conduct annual onsite state program evaluations as directed in guidance, reportedly due to a lack of resources. GAO recommends evaluating and revising as needed UIC program guidance on effective oversight to identify essential activities for effectively overseeing state and EPA-managed programs.
- EPA has not approved and incorporated all state program requirements and changes into the federal regulations through a rulemaking so may not be able to enforce all state program requirements. GAO recommends conducting the necessary rulemakings and considering alternative processes for incorporating future changes more efficiently without a rulemaking.
- Class II data collected by EPA are currently not sufficiently complete or comparable for reporting at a national level. GAO recommends various measures for supporting nationwide reporting goals until the national UIC database is complete, including improving the quality of incoming data and the usability of existing data.
The GAO will provide updated information when it confirms what actions EPA has taken in response to GAO’s recommendations.