Wednesday, December 12, 2012

EPA allows toxic waste injection into drinking water aquifers across the country, probe finds

"Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water," Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. Often, the Environmental Protection Agency allows these aquifer exemptions in Western states where gas extraction has been booming, but drought has made people "increasingly desperate for water."

EPA records show that at least 100 drinking water aquifers "have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds," Lustgarten writes. As part of his investigation, Lustgarten tried to find out which aquifers have been polluted. But the EPA "has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect," he writes. Exemptions are apparently issued in conflict with the agency's mandate to protect drinking water.

Hundreds of the exemptions are for "lower-quality water of questionable use," Lustgarten reports. But many of them allow "grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology." Exemptions are only supposed to be granted if aquifers are too remote, too dirty or too deep to access for drinking water, and applicants for exemption must convince the government that the water isn't being used as drinking water and never will be. However, the EPA has issued exemptions for portions of aquifers already in use, "assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted," Lustgarten reports.

"In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company's application," Lustgarten reports. The EPA declined to comment, but sent Lustgarten a written statement saying aquifer exemptions were issued responsibly. However, officials say the agency is quietly assembling a task force to "re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies." (Read more)

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