MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
NPR has obtained internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency that show that the agency has long been allowing oil companies to release polluted water on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Millions of gallons every month create streams of this water, and it ends up in natural rivers.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren is joining us to talk about the documents. And, Elizabeth, to start, what's going on here?
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Well, the federal government actually banned this kind of dumping in the 1970s, but they made an exception, a loophole for the arid West. And I learned about this recently. It surprised me, so I put in some Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA to try to learn more.
CORNISH: So what did find in the documents?
SHOGREN: Well, what I found out is that there are some staffers at the EPA who are trying to figure out what's in this water. And they're learning it has some nasty stuff in it. There's some toxic chemicals and carcinogens and radioactive material. But there's a lot we don't know about the EPA's thinking. They kept 750 documents from us, and they wouldn't let me speak with anybody. So I felt like I really had to go to the Wind River Reservation to understand what's going on.
CORNISH: You actually went there. I mean, did you see this water? How much water are we talking about?
SHOGREN: Yes. One of the things that shocked me is how much water - it's literally small rivers of this water in the reservation in some places. And what I did expect is that I wouldn't want to take a sip of this water, but what I didn't expect is that it would be dangerous to even stand next to it. And that's where I'm going to start my story.
CORNISH: I'm with one of the tribal leaders, Wes Martel. He's a fit 65-year-old with a long graying ponytail. And he's taking me out to show me this water.
Ooh. Ooh, can you smell that?
WES MARTEL: Yeah.
MARTEL: That's why I'm hesitating in getting out here.
SHOGREN: We pulled up next to a big black pit. The air reeks of rotten eggs. Martel tells me it's hydrogen sulfide. It can be deadly. So before we get out of the car, we make sure the wind is at our backs. Martel takes me over to the pit.
This is like about a football field size, right?
MARTEL: Probably, three or four tennis courts maybe.
SHOGREN: The whole pit is covered with goopy black oil. There are these big pipes. Brown wastewater from oil wells is gushing out of them into the pit.
It's so much water that it creates those streams. Half a mile away, we stop the car on a bridge over this stream of wastewater.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
SHOGREN: Does that look natural to you?
MARTEL: No way. Just that color. When a stream is healthy, it's green. This is not green.
SHOGREN: It's murky gray. In some places, there's a shiny film on the surface.
MARTEL: I wish a lot of people could just see this and - see, this is something that's going on on the reservation. This don't look too cool.
SHOGREN: Now, in most of the country, this would not be allowed. So why is it allowed here on the Wind River Reservation? It's beautiful here.
SHOGREN: You've got big sandstone hills that blaze with reds and oranges. Other than the oil wells, it's just desert wilderness, mostly empty except for a few cows. And these cows are supposedly the reason why oil companies get to do this.
MARTEL: You can just see their tracks right down - in that water. This is one of their watering holes.
SHOGREN: Without this water, this area would be bone-dry most of the year. Back in the 1970s, the EPA was banning this kind of dumping. But ranchers, especially here in Wyoming, fought back. They said their cows need this water, any water, even if it's dirty.
We're standing on the other side of the bridge where the stream is rushing out of big corrugated pipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
SHOGREN: Wes Martel thinks this can't be good.
MARTEL: Well, you know, especially this volume of water, and this is constant. So it really makes you wonder what kind of impact is this having on not only aquatic life but our wildlife. And then, you know, you've got to wonder what types of chemicals are those beef retaining. And when that goes to the slaughterhouse, what's in your steak, right?
DARWIN GRIEBEL: Oh, come on, Wes. What difference does it make? Animals drink it. People aren't going to drink it. The hell with the quality of the water.
SHOGREN: That's Darwin Griebel. He's one of a handful of ranchers whose livestock use the water. He's known Martel since they were in elementary school together and slept over at each other's houses. He's talking to me while we're going to pick up some cows that escaped to a neighbor's ranch.
Have you ever noticed any health problems with your animals?
GRIEBEL: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. No. The production water leaves the oil field. By the time it runs probably four, 500 yards, it starts purifying. In fact, when you're in Five Mile Creek, there's fish in there.
SHOGREN: Have you ever noticed anything weird about the water?
SHOGREN: All the kind of the white crystals and stuff?
GRIEBEL: Well, that's right at the start of it. But, you know, after, like I said, after it flows for a while, that's all gone.
SHOGREN: And then I ask Griebel about a suspicion I've had: Do cows really need this water? Or are oil companies just making it up, so they can have a cheaper way to dispose of it?
He tells me, yeah. For generations, his family has depended on this water.
What would it be like without the production water?
GRIEBEL: Then there would be no water for the cows. There would be no water for the deer, the antelope, nothing. It'd put us out of business is what it would do.
SHOGREN: Griebel has got a point. There's a lot of water flowing on the Wind River Reservation. All in all, there are about a dozen different oil fields here with permission to continuously spew out this water.
The water is from deep underground. It gets pumped to the surface with the oil. By the time it's released into streams, most of the oil has been separated out. But there are still chemicals in the water: chemicals from the earth, chemicals from the crude and chemicals that companies add to their wells to maintain them and get the oil to flow faster.
Now, the EPA does require some testing, but for the most part the agency doesn't know exactly what's in the water.
ROB JACKSON: I was shocked when I first heard this.
SHOGREN: Rob Jackson is an environmental scientist at Duke University. He researches the petroleum industry.
JACKSON: I was very surprised that this was allowed. It's just something that we should know better by now. We should know that dumping our wastes onto the surface of the ground is a bad solution.
SHOGREN: Other experts, including scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, say dumping oil field water is rare because it nearly always contains harmful chemicals.
Rob Jackson reviewed many of the documents the EPA gave NPR in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. These documents include analyses of chemicals found in the water and warning labels for treatments the companies put in the wells.
JACKSON: The chemicals that are in this water contain hazardous air pollutants, such as naphthalene and hydrochloric acid, and carcinogens like benzene and ethyl benzene. There are many things in this water that you don't want in the environment or in people's drinking water. You don't need to be a genius to know that this is a bad idea.
SHOGREN: You can tell from reading the internal EPA documents that some EPA staffers are appalled. One staffer refers to what's happening on the Wind River Reservation as, quote, "ridiculousness." Another staffer writes about, quote, "irrevocable human health and environmental impacts."
Duke University's Rob Jackson agrees that the EPA needs to reconsider how this looks and the consequences.
JACKSON: Are we doing something on tribal lands that we wouldn't allow somewhere else? I think that's a question we need to be asking ourselves.
SHOGREN: Off the reservation, the states decide what companies get to do with the water. Their rules are stricter than the EPA's, and some states have virtually outlawed dumping. Most oil companies re-inject this water deep underground where it can't do harm. But on the Wind River Reservation, the EPA has control.
Eastern Shoshone leader Wes Martel believes this problem has escaped scrutiny for so long because the oil fields are remote and on tribal land. Royalties from this oil help support the tribes and their members.
MARTEL: Yeah, most of our elders were very trusting, very trusting people. And they had the opportunity to, you know, get some revenue. And, you know, most of them were just thinking we're being watched over.
SHOGREN: Martel is pushing the EPA to make oil companies clean up this water or put it back underground.
And if the operators say, well, it's too expensive to re-inject it, we're packing up and going away, what would you and your people think about that?
MARTEL: Good riddance. We'll take it over ourselves and do it right.
SHOGREN: Martel dreams of putting tribal companies in charge of their oil fields. Then the tribes would get all the profits instead of just royalties. They'd also be able to protect water quality for future generations.
But the EPA hasn't told the tribes what its plans are. It also refused to give interviews to NPR. But the agency said in a statement that it's evaluating the permission it gives some companies to do this.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.