A Word on Aquifer Pollution - Help Week


Photo by Kelsey Wagner.

When it comes to environmental causes, fracking has all the enemies that a foul industrial practice could ask for. From Yoko Ono Lennon’s recent anti-fracking campaign across New York state, to the muckraking 2010 documentary, Gasland, that’s enjoying a continued bout of relevance – there’s no shortage of serious sources denouncing hydraulic fracturing at every turn.

However, fracking isn’t the only way to pollute precious yet inconspicuous sources of drinking water on American soil.

Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for the public interest journalism nonprofit, ProPublica. His most recent work focuses on the pollution of deep water aquifers throughout America in the name of energy (among other industrial culprits), all while the EPA plays blissfully ignorant. These aquifers are pockets of water buried deep in the soil, not unlike the underground tributaries and reservoirs affected by fracking, that lie below elevations where current regulations forbid industrial waste deposits.

In places like Pumpkin Buttes in Campbell County, Wyoming, more than 200,000 gallons of radioactive waste are deposited into giant underground reservoirs per day from a nearby uranium mining facility. The pollution has since contaminated areas surrounding the aquifers, but since these water pockets are not currently being tapped for public use, little outcry if any can be heard aside from the deafening megaphones at the disposal of the energy lobby.

Given the drought of last summer that swept through much of the southwest United States – including states with a growing appetite for nuclear energy – there’s an increasing likelihood that America could depend on aquifers at or below a depth of the ones in Pumpkin Buttes for its drinkable water supply. Recently, Mexico City layed out a plan to begin tapping into deep soil aquifers that reside far beneath EPA protections and are currently being polluted throughout the U.S.

BreakThru Radio recently spoke on the phone with Mr. Lustgarten about the dangers of aquifer pollution and whether or not we can look to Mexico City as a reliable indicator of future American demand for suitable water resources.

BreakThru Radio: In your latest work for ProPublica you’ve been reporting for how the U.S. allows the energy industry to pollute water trapped in deep pockets of the soil called aquifers. As water shortages increase in the wake of climate change, America might need to draw from these aquifers in the future to sustain a drinkable water supply; and you use a recent water drilling plan to be constructed in Mexico City as an example for how water in these deep regions of the soil could be used to meet increased demand for water. Can you summarize for our listeners what makes the Mexico City plan so special and what it means for the United States?

Abrahm Lustgarten: Yeah sure, I mean, most people don’t realize more than half of the drinking water in the United States for all Americans comes from underground sources. The ground’s full of water called aquifers. Some of them are clean, some of them need to be filtered a little bit, but we get a lot of our water with a changing climate, probably more of our water from deep sources. In the United States policy, the government looks at some of the deeper aquifers and says, “Well, they’re so deep that we’re probably never gonna need them. We’re not gonna spend this much money that would cost to get that water out,” and so they allow them to be polluted.

In Mexico City, the city’s dealt with a water shortage for years and years and just recently discovered a huge drinking water aquifer just beneath the city itself. It’s about 6,000 feet deep and it’s going to be usable for Mexicans and it’s right in the range where American policy would typically write it off as unusable. So it’s a real kind of teaching point in I think where our water demands are going to be met in the future and maybe some folly in American policy.

BTR: Where in America is industry allowed to dump waste in aquifers as deep as the soil as where Mexico City plans on drilling its new reserves?

AL: Well actually, all over. In our reporting we found at least 1,500 cases where the EPA had issued a permit to do that sort of dumping. The majority of it is in western mountain states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Texas, even California — all states that have significant water shortages but also have very active resource industries so places where they’re drilling for oil and gas, mining for uranium, mining for other metals, things like that. But there are disposal wells in some that are impacting aquifers in Pennsylvania, in Virginia, and Florida, and places where you might not expect them as well.

BTR: Yes, the example you cite of the deep aquifer pollution in Wyoming in that same article is especially concerning, because as you report, a uranium mine is allowed to dump 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste into those aquifers on that level. And that’s aquifers with drinking water that’s approved by the EPA for drinking but is as yet unused. Is this kind of radioactive waste practice typical for the kind of pollution these aquifers endure or is this a special case?

AL: Well, a little bit of both. Uranium mines aren’t as prevalent as oil and gas wells so there aren’t as many of them but a uranium mine can’t happen without polluting the waters, it’s just part of the mining process. So, for every uranium mine in the United States, and there’s a couple dozen of them, there are aquifers being polluted. But there are thousands of oil and gas wells where something similar is happening. So, uranium is one potent example because there’s such a demand for uranium right now with an eye towards nuclear energy, but it’s not the only kind of case where this happens.

BTR: In that example there have been accounts of uranium pollution leaking outside of those aquifers and into surrounding areas. Is that typical of other areas where the energy industry is going after this drinking water for dumping their waste?

AL: I’m afraid that it is but we don’t really know for sure and that’s part of the focus of my reporting over the last year or so. There’s a bunch of geological rules, scientists assume that the Earth holds the injected contaminants whether it’s radioactive waste or other toxic pollutants that it holds it without leaking. I’ve been looking at a lot of evidence and talking to a lot of scientists who say they’re just learning now that there’s actually a lot more migration of fluids, of contaminants of pollution underground than they’ve ever realized before. So, you have to look at different examples and take from them what you can because there’s not a lot of research in this area.

But with uranium mines in particular, it’s interesting because uranium regulators say that that kind of migration – they call it excursions — they say it’s pretty normal. That is to say, most of the uranium mines that are out there they’ve measured some degree of toxic pollution temporarily going beyond the perimeter of the mine area where they didn’t expect to go and then they start a clean-up process that addresses some of that pollution. But that kind of monitoring that exists for uranium mines doesn’t exist for the thousands of other sites where this is happening, so it’s really a huge question mark of what’s happening at oil and gas drilling disposal sites or other industrial disposal sites.

For more with Mr. Lustgarten, tune into the latest episode of BTR’s current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly, airing this Thursday.