National Public Radio (NPR) has unearthed documents via the federal Freedom of Information Act that show how a legal loophole enables oil companies to let oil-laden wastewater flow freely on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, home of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
The November 16 edition of the NPR news show All Things Considered exposes the pollution being unleashed onto ranch lands, into water that is drunk by livestock—including cattle that may at some point grace a dinner table. About a dozen oil and gas fields pepper the reservation, and they have permission to simply let their runoff flow into the ground, NPR has found. So much wastewater is dumped that “it creates streams that flow into natural creeks and rivers,” NPR reported. “And this water contains toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens and radioactive material.”
The NPR story explains why potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide–laden water is allowed to sit exposed in an open pit. It’s because if it weren’t for the wastewater, this desert landscape would be completely dry for a good portion of the year, and it wouldn’t be able to support the cattle industry. Ranchers in Wyoming protested in the 1970s when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forbid oil companies to dump their wastewater, arguing that it should be allowed to flow so their livestock could drink. They said dirty water would be better than no water, NPR’s report said.
One such rancher is tribal member Darwin Griebel, Eastern Shoshone, whose livestock drinks the water from the oil field. He thinks concerns are unwarranted and the hazard estimate overblown, NPR said.
After the dirty wastewater flows into the pit, the oil will theoretically float to the surface and be vacuumed up, with any solids sinking to the pit bottom. In essence, the toxins should be flushed out naturally, NPR said the reasoning goes. Except that it doesn’t quite get cleaned up. Chemicals are still present, from the earth, oil and some added by the companies themselves to loosen up the flow, NPR said.
To their credit, EPA staffers are “appalled” by the dumping, NPR said the documents showed, though they are helpless to stop it. Only one oil company would comment for the radio station, Marathon Oil Company, whose three oil fields are not polluters, said its spokesman, Rocky Mountain operations manager Bob Whisonant, to NPR.
The Wind River Reservation is fraught with chemical problems. Its water is already being tested for uranium contamination, and its members suspect that abnormally high rates of cancer are due to the chemicals that abound in the water and air there. And they think about the bigger picture, too.
“You’ve got to wonder, what types of chemicals are those beef retaining?” tribal leader Wes Martel told NPR. “And when that goes to the slaughterhouse, what’s in your steak?”
The NPR story goes into more depth. Read Loophole Lets Toxic Oil Water Flow Over Indian Land and listen to the interview with Martel on the NPR site, whose presentation also includes a stunning, yet disturbing, photo gallery.