SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing in its mandate to protect underground drinking water reserves from oilfield contamination, according to a federal review singling out lax EPA oversight in California, where the state routinely allowed oil companies to dump wastewater into some drinking water aquifers.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office review also sampled EPA operations around the country before concluding federal regulators were failing to collect paperwork and make on-site inspections necessary to ensure states are enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act when it comes to oilfield operations.
"The takeaway overall is that the EPA doesn't collect and states don't provide the information for the EPA to exercise the oversight that's its job," said Kassie Siegel, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups critical of state and federal regulation of oilfield waste and drinking water.
"It shows a massive failure to protect our drinking water," Siegel said, emphasizing the problem in California.
The federal review released last month made an object lesson of California, the country's No. 3 oil-producing state, where state and federal regulators have acknowledged since at least 2014 that state-permitted oilfield operations were violating safe-drinking water laws.
Violations included allowing oilfield companies to dump wastewater into at least 11 underground aquifers that were supposed to have been protected by federal law as potential sources of drinking water.
An Associated Press analysis in 2015 cited more than 2,000 permits California had given oil companies to inject into federally protected drinking water reserves. The AP analysis found granting of such permits had sped up since 2011 under Gov. Jerry Brown, although the state said it believed its dates on some of the permitting information were wrong.
In a statement, the EPA said Wednesday it generally agreed with the federal review and would take steps to improve data-collection and oversight. EPA spokeswoman Kelly Zito also said that this week's resignation of Jared Blumenfeld, regional EPA administrator for California, was not related to either the oilfield issues or the Government Accountability Office report.
California's oil regulators said Tuesday the state's overhaul of its enforcement of safe-drinking-water laws and the oil and gas industry was "well-underway."
Overall, "California is ahead in reforming its underground injection program compared to other states," said Teresa Schilling, assistant director of the California Department of Conservation.
The issue concerns the disposal of oilfield wastewater by oil companies nationally. Oil drilling and other operations produce massive amounts of briny fluid and other waste. Oilfield operators often dispose of the waste by injecting it back underground.
State and federal law regulate how the oil companies do that, with the goal of protecting naturally occurring underground water aquifers pure enough to potentially one day be tapped for drinking water or irrigation.
Government Accountability Office inspectors cited California's experience, and their own past and current scrutiny of EPA operations around the country, in concluding "EPA does not have the information, or consistently conduct the oversight activities, needed ... to help ensure that (state and federal regulators) protect underground sources of drinking water."
The sampling studied EPA operations in Colorado, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas with regard to federally protected drinking water and underground injection of oilfield waste.
EPA administrators told federal inspectors that they lacked the resources to assemble the needed databases on oilfield operations and water aquifers, or to inspect state oilfield regulatory operations in person, the Government Accountability Office report said.
The report is the first to publicly examine the EPA's role in the failures of California's regulation of oilfield waste and drinking water aquifers.
The report also highlighted some new problems with California's oilfield regulation, such as more than $5 million in penalties that Government Accountability Office inspectors said California had levied against oil companies but not yet collected.
California is now under an EPA-agreed timetable for bringing oilfield regulation into compliance with federal drinking water laws, although Siegel and other environmentalists claim the state is already falling behind on that schedule.
Schilling, the California official, said the state had met the "major deadlines." The state was looking into the Government Accountability Office allegation of uncollected oilfield penalties, she said.
California officials have acknowledged that they allowed oilfield contamination of some federally protected drinking water aquifers, although they say the limited tests made public so far show contamination has not reached drinking water wells.