The Environmental Protection Agency relied on solely political reasons" to reject a staff recommendation that some oil and gas drilling wastes be regulated more strictly, an agency employee says.
Politics overrode science and we've never done that before," said Hugh Kaufman, assistant to the EPA's director of the hazardous site control division.This is the first time in the history of environmental regulation of hazardous wastes that the EPA has exempted a powerful industry from regulation for solely political reasons, despite a scientific determination of the hazardousness of the wastes," he said in an interview.
Mr. Kaufman and another staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas; Phil Gramm, R-Texas; and Don Nickles, R-Okla., pressured the agency, as did the Interior and Energy departments and some states.
EPA administrators deny that their call was swayed by political pressure.
The majority of an EPA working group that studied the issue had recommended that a small volume of drilling wastes come under stringent regulation as hazardous.
But EPA Administrator Lee Thomas and J. Winston Porter, the EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a June 30 report to Congress that they had decided that all oil and gas drilling wastes would remain exempt from hazardous waste rules.
Mr. Porter said it was certainly a close call . . . not an easy decision," but that his conscience is clear."
So-called associated wastes account for 1 percent of the total volume of drilling wastes but contain highly toxic materials such as benzene, heavy metals and corrosive acids that are regulated as hazardous in other industries, the EPA staff said. It concluded that the wastes pose a threat to the environment if not handled properly and that states are largely doing a poor job of enforcing existing regulations.
A draft staff report said the cost to the industry to regulate those materials as hazardous wastes would have ranged from $200 million to $500 million a year.
However, relative to total production and the total volume of product, the overall impacts on the industry should not be unduly burdensome," the report said.
It would have been a fly in the economic health of that industry," said Mr. Kaufman, a frequent public critic of top-level agency decisions. Mr. Kaufman and officials responding to his accusations spoke in interviews last week.
Mr. Porter agreed with the staff position that many states do not adequately regulate drilling wastes, but said another layer of regulation was not the answer. Hazardous waste laws can be inflexible and are not necessarily appropriate for the nation's hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells, he said.
Mr. Porter wrote to Mr. Thomas that although the working group had wanted to regulate the low-volume wastes as hazardous, we now feel that removing any portion of the exemption would be too disruptive and burdensome to both the regulated industry and the regulating agencies."