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An NPR investigation last year found the Environmental Protection Agency was allowing oil companies to dump polluted wastewater on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Well, now, the EPA is proposing with a few basic safeguards to let those companies keep dumping. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: I visited the Wind River Reservation last fall. Tribal leader Wes Martel showed me the streams of dirty water flowing from oil operations, and the cows and wildlife that drink it. Wes Martel told me it's clear to him that the EPA shouldn't let this happen.
WES MARTEL: Well, you know, especially this volume of water, and this is constant. So it really makes you wonder what kind of impacts is this having on not only aquatic life but our wildlife and then what's in your steak, right?
SHOGREN: At the time of our original story, the EPA said it was reviewing the practice. Now, it's proposing to let it continue but with a few new requirements. Darrell Lohoefer is the president of Eagle Oil & Gas Company. He has one well on the reservation that has permission to dump water.
DARRELL LOHOEFER: It looks like a flowing small creek.
SHOGREN: He says wildlife and cows have been drinking it for decades without any negative effects. He admits it's rare for companies to dump their wastewater on the surface like this. In most of the country, oil companies aren't allowed to do that. But decades ago, an exception was made in the West. Ranchers wanted water. In this arid land, any water is appreciated. And Lohoefer says it's not that contaminated.
LOHOEFER: Water has actually created an artificial wetlands and ecosystem that has extensive wildlife thriving in it.
SHOGREN: Under the new permits, companies would be on the watch for naturally occurring chemicals that could be flushed up with the oil from deep underground, like salts, organic chemicals and metals. They'd have limits for how much of those naturally occurring chemicals could be in the water. But Jeff Ruch says the permits ignore the chemicals some companies add. He heads the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
JEFF RUCH: What they don't mention are the maintenance fluids and the fracking fluids. Chemicals that have been introduced down hole as it were.
SHOGREN: It's clear some companies do this, both from documents NPR obtained from the EPA and from those new permits the EPA has proposed for those operations. Ruch says he had to do the research to find out that companies regularly add to their wells hazardous chemicals such as glycol and xylene. And from time to time, the companies force chemical-laced water down their wells to burst open formations underground. It's known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, and it gets the oil moving faster. He says the EPA's proposed permits pretend none of this is happening.
RUCH: They don't disclose what chemicals are involved. They don't have any kind of plan to monitor for them. There are no safeguards for wildlife or livestock. The EPA should be ashamed of itself for this permit.
SHOGREN: Rob Jackson, a professor of environmental science at Duke University, looked at the proposed permits at NPR's request.
ROB JACKSON: The biggest concern is still what's in the water. It has salts, metals, radioactive elements, like radium, and chemicals, such as benzene, and sometimes at levels 150 times what's allowed in drinking water. Who wants to eat a cow that drinks water laced with benzene?
SHOGREN: The proposed permits require companies to do more and better water testing, but Jackson says it still would be easy for oil companies to time their samples to make the water seem cleaner than it is.
JACKSON: If I were working on that site and I knew that there was a week where the discharges would be high, I certainly wouldn't be taking my water sample at that point in time.
SHOGREN: Jackson says many of the contaminants will build up in the stream bottoms over time, leaving a toxic legacy for the future. Even with the new restrictions the EPA is proposing, Jackson isn't satisfied.
JACKSON: I am surprised that it's still allowed. It looks like the protections for tribal citizens here are weaker than those for citizens in Wyoming that surround them. I mean, if so, that's wrong.
SHOGREN: EPA officials refused to give NPR an interview about these proposed permits. They say they will speak after the public's opportunity to comment on the permits ends, which happens Friday. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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