Tall Drink of Wastewater: EPA Considers Permitting Wastewater Disposal Into Texas Rivers and Streams

For every barrel of oil drilled in Texas, four-to-five barrels of wastewater are produced. The abundance of untreated water has led the EPA to consider whether to permit oil drillers in Texas to discharge wastewater directly into local rivers and streams, avoiding the complicated and costly process of trucking the water to underground wells that may be many miles away. If put into effect, this plan would alter established federal clean water regulations that have been in place for decades.

Currently, drillers pump wastewater, a side-effect of the drilling process, into underground wells. Recently however, the wells have begun reaching capacity, causing the Trump administration to consider changing the rules to allow the wastewater to be disposed of within rivers and streams that are used for community water supplies.

According to current regulations, drillers are technically permitted to dispose of wastewater into the water supply if it has been cleaned according to stringent requirements. As this process is expensive and time consuming, it is rarely done. The EPA is considering adjusting water standards so that oil and gas companies can effectively treat wastewater to be released into the public water supplies, without causing human illness or affecting local wildlife.

As is typical in politically-charged environmental discussions, there are two primary viewpoints regarding the proposed change. Environmental activist groups maintain that there is insufficient research into the proper cleaning and testing of wastewater, while oil and gas lobbyists believe the current recommendations go too far. There is a push to consider whether properly cleaned and sanitized could even be a resource for agriculture, industrial services, and even drinking water supplies.

Over the next several months, oil companies and environmentalist groups will make their cases to the EPA. The EPA is consulting with experts and holding town hall meetings around the country in order to make a decision by the summer of 2019. No matter what decision is reached, it will be sure to draw further attention to the changes to longstanding EPA policies.

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