How Trump’s EPA Is Moving to Undo Fracking Wastewater Protections

Back in 2008, residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas received a notice in the mail advising them to drink bottled water instead of tap water—a move that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) internal memos at the time described as “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”

The culprit: wastewater from oil and gas drilling and coal mines. This included fracking wastewater that state officials had allowed to be dumped at local sewer plants—facilities incapable of removing the complex mix of chemicals, corrosive salts and radioactive materials from that kind of industrial waste before they piped the “treated” water back into Pennsylvania’s rivers.

The levels of corrosive salt in some of the oil and gas wastewater was so high that at some sewage plants, it was suspected of killing off the “good bacteria” that removes fecal coliform and other dangerous bacteria from raw sewage.

State and federal regulators responded with a mix of voluntary requests and, eventually, rules designed to stop drillers from bringing their wastewater to ill-equipped water treatment plants.

Eight years after the Pittsburgh incident, in 2016, the EPA finished writing the rules that would stop that kind of failure from reoccurring, specifically forbidding sewage treatment plans from accepting untreated wastewater from fracked wells.

Now, the Trump administration’s EPA is announcing that it wants to study the industry’s wastewater all over again. The Trump-era study will examine oil and gas wastewater, asking, in the administration’s words, “whether any potential federal regulations that may allow for broader discharge of treated produced water to surface waters are supported.”

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