Drinking Water:

EPA Needs to Collect Information and Consistently Conduct Activities to Protect Underground Sources of Drinking Water

GAO-16-281: Published: Feb 26, 2016. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2016.

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not collected specific inspection and complete or consistent enforcement information, or consistently conducted oversight activities, to assess whether state and EPA-managed Underground Injection Control (UIC) class II programs are protecting underground sources of drinking water. EPA guidance calls for states and EPA regions to report certain information and for EPA to assess whether programs are effectively protecting underground sources of drinking water, but the agency does not. Specifically:

EPA annually collects summary data from state and EPA-managed programs on the types of inspections they conduct. However, these data are not specific enough to determine the number of different types of inspections that states and EPA regions are to conduct to meet their annual goals. Such goals are specified at the well level (e.g., to inspect 100 percent of wells associated with emergency responses). Under federal internal control standards, managers are to compare actual performance to planned or expected results and analyze significant differences. Without well-specific data on inspections, EPA cannot assess whether state and EPA-managed programs are meeting annual inspection goals.

EPA collects information on unresolved significant violations of state and EPA-managed programs to determine if the agency needs to take action to enforce applicable program requirements. However, GAO's analysis of a nongeneralizable sample of 93 significant violations for fiscal years 2008 through 2013 found that state and EPA-managed programs did not report data on such violations completely or consistently. For example, of 29 such violations that had not been enforced after 90 days as required, programs reported 7 to EPA. According to EPA and state officials, the cause was inconsistent interpretations of EPA's reporting guidance. EPA officials said they are aware that the data reported on such violations are not complete or consistent, but the agency has not clarified in guidance what data programs should report. Until it does so, EPA does not have reasonable assurance that it has the data needed to assess if it must take enforcement action.

EPA has not consistently conducted oversight activities necessary to assess whether state and EPA-managed programs are protecting underground sources of drinking water. For example, GAO found in June 2014 that EPA does not consistently conduct oversight activities, such as annual on-site program evaluations. According to EPA guidance, such evaluations should include a review of permitting and inspection files or activities to assess whether the state is protecting underground water. In California, for example, EPA did not regularly review permitting, and in July 2014, after a state review of permitting, EPA determined that the program was out of compliance with state and EPA requirements. EPA officials said that they have few resources to oversee UIC class II programs, but EPA has not conducted a workforce analysis consistent with GAO's work on strategic human capital management to identify the resources needed for such oversight. Without conducting such an analysis, EPA will not be able identify the human capital or other resources needed to carry out oversight of the UIC class II programs to help ensure that they protect underground sources of drinking water.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the early 2000s, increased oil and gas production has resulted in an increase in wastewater that must be managed properly. The majority of wastewater from oil and gas production is injected into underground wells known as class II wells. These wells are regulated to protect drinking water sources under EPA's UIC class II well program and approved state class II programs. EPA oversees state programs, and EPA regions manage programs in states without approval.

GAO was asked to review EPA's oversight of programs' inspection and enforcement information and activities. This report examines the extent to which EPA has collected inspection and enforcement information and conducted oversight activities needed to assess that class II programs protect underground sources of drinking water. GAO reviewed federal and state laws and regulations and EPA guidance and analyzed a nongeneralizable sample of significant violations. GAO interviewed EPA and state officials from programs in a nongeneralizable sample of eight states selected based on shale oil and gas regions, among other factors.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that, among other things, EPA require programs to report well-specific inspections data, clarify guidance on enforcement data reporting, and analyze the resources needed to oversee programs. EPA generally agreed with GAO's findings, but does not plan to require well-specific data and analyze needed resources. GAO continues to believe that EPA should take both actions to better assess if programs protect underground sources of drinking water.

For more information, contact Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA has decided to modernize and streamline the agency's underground injection control (UIC) data tool collection process. The agency developed a web-based application that allows all UIC programs the ability to submit inventory and Form 7520 data electronically to the same platform. According to EPA officials, the application was officially launched in 2019 in time for mid-year reporting, and will be the only mechanism for submitting data to the EPA. The application will also allow programs the ability to submit well-specific inventory information, but it is voluntary. In addition, the agency said that it will continue to work with DOE and the Groundwater Protection Council to develop a national oil and gas gateway for well-specific data. According to EPA officials, EPA believes the efficient approach is to collaboratively work with its state partners, instead of requiring through rule making, to improve the collection and quality of the well-specific data. GAO recognizes the improvements that EPA has made in the program to date, however, these actions will not provide EPA with the data on individual wells that it needs to oversee the state programs. GAO continues to believe that individual well data is needed and does not consider this recommendation implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure protection of underground drinking water from the injection of wastewater associated with domestic oil and gas production, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should require and collect well-specific data on inspections from state and EPA-managed programs, including when the wells were inspected, the types of inspections conducted, and the results of the inspections in order to track progress toward state and EPA-managed annual inspection goals.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA published an interactive map in January 2017 that allows users to view EPA approved aquifer exemptions. The map shows the approved aquifer exemption geographic boundaries and information such as the depth of injection, local geology, and injected fluid characteristics. The map was updated with new data or improvements to existing data in April 2018. The map consolidates information from states and EPA regional offices with the goal of providing consistent, up-to-date information on aquifer exemptions nation-wide. In June 2020, EPA finalized an aquifer exemptions database and interactive map, which allows users to find locations of aquifers approved for exemption from UIC regulations. The website also provides geospatial files and data with associated guidance documents. The interactive map provides information such as the depth, local geology, injected fluid characteristics, and, where available, exempted aquifer boundaries. According to EPA officials, the database and map contain information for all current aquifer exemptions, and EPA will update the database and interactive map with any newly approved exemptions annually. With a complete and up-to-date database on aquifer exemptions, EPA will have sufficient information on exemptions to oversee state and EPA-managed UIC programs and assess whether programs are protecting underground sources of drinking water from the injection of wastewater associated with domestic oil and gas production.

    Recommendation: To help ensure protection of underground drinking water from the injection of wastewater associated with domestic oil and gas production, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should complete the aquifer exemption database and establish a way to update it to provide EPA headquarters and regions with sufficient information on aquifer exemptions to oversee state and EPA-managed programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of January 2020, EPA provided guidance clarifying the Form 7520-4 instructions to improve consistency and completeness of data provided by EPA regions and states to EPA on UIC well violations and enforcement actions. EPA officials said that the agency had developed a web-based 7520 database that can be used to report, aggregate and summarize 7520 data. According to EPA officials, EPA hopes to standardize and incorporate 7520-4 data into the 7520 database. We consider this recommendation implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure protection of underground drinking water from the injection of wastewater associated with domestic oil and gas production, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should clarify guidance on what data should be reported on the 7520-4 form to help ensure that the data collected are complete and consistent across state and EPA-managed programs and to provide the information EPA needs to assess whether it must take enforcement actions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of June 2020, EPA officials agreed that oversight is an important aspect of ensuring an effective UIC program. They stated, however, that a workforce analysis is not necessary to better assess the resources needed to oversee the implementation of the UIC Class II program. According to EPA officials, they conduct UIC program oversight via two primary types of program evaluations--annual performance reviews based on individual state work plans and comprehensive program evaluations. As part of the evaluation, EPA officials said that they look at the resources the state agency is using for the UIC program. Additionally, EPA officials stated that they have developed a series of training modules that focus on a variety of aspects within the UIC program including permitting, inspection and enforcement, construction, and operations. GAO agrees that these actions are important for program oversight of state programs. The recommendation, however, was for EPA to conduct an assessment of its own resources to ensure that it has sufficient resources to carry out its UIC responsibilities. As noted in the report, it is important for EPA to ensure the agency has resources to consistently conduct oversight activities to assess whether state and EPA-managed programs are complying with applicable requirements. This recommendation has not been implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure protection of underground drinking water from the injection of wastewater associated with domestic oil and gas production, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should conduct a workforce analysis to identify the human capital and other resources EPA needs to carry out its oversight of state and EPA-managed programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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