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Highlights

Billions of gallons of hazardous liquid waste are injected into underground wells each year. These Class I hazardous deep injection wells are designed to inject waste into an area below the lowermost underground source of drinking water. EPA and the states grant permits to commercial operators to construct and operate these wells and must obtain public comments on the permits. Communities often raise concerns about well safety and other matters. GAO examined the extent to which EPA and the states (1) address these community concerns, (2) consider environmental justice issues, and (3) ensure that financial assurances adequately protect the taxpayer if bankruptcy occurs. GAO, among other things, examined the permit process in the four states that have commercial Class I wells.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency To allow more time for community concerns to be addressed, the Administrator, EPA, should involve communities earlier in the permitting process for constructing a well.
Closed - Not Implemented
EPA stated that it currently complies with the Safe Drinking Water Act regarding public participation and meets the requirements of 40 CFR Part 124 and 40 CFR Parts 144 and 146. Site and land use issues and decisions, which contributed to the lengthy debate on the construction of the deep injection well in Michigan, are the responsibility of state and local officials.
Environmental Protection Agency Furthermore, to ensure that requirements are adequate to cover the costs of plugging and abandonment of Class I hazardous deep injection wells and thereby reducing the public's financial risk, the Administrator, EPA, should review and, if warranted, strengthen financial assurance requirements for Class I hazardous deep injection wells. In so doing, the Administrator should consider the applicability of the Office of the Inspector General's findings and recommendations for Resource Conservation and Recovery Act financial assurance.
Closed - Not Implemented
In June 2016, EPA provided an analysis of its new class VI well financial responsibility guidance. The agency has developed guidance that contains an analysis of different financial assurance mechanisms, including third party insurance, and discusses the weaknesses and applicability of each type of mechanism to different situations related to injection wells. However, EPA has not used this analysis to strengthen the financial assurance requirements for class I injection wells, as we recommended. For this reason, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.
Environmental Protection Agency Furthermore, to ensure that requirements are adequate to cover the costs of plugging and abandonment of Class I hazardous deep injection wells and thereby reducing the public's financial risk, the Administrator, EPA, should review and, if warranted, strengthen financial assurance requirements for Class I hazardous deep injection wells. In so doing, the Administrator should consider the applicability of the results and recommendations of the ongoing work group for Class II wells.
Closed - Not Implemented
EPA believes that revisions to the financial assurance regulations are unnecessary based on the 23-year successful history of the financial assurance provisions. This position is based on the fact that the vast majority of the Class I wells have never experienced financial assurance issues, and the cases cited in the study were caused by extraordinary events.

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