… California’s natural resources agency, with the oversight and consent of the federal government, also runs a shadow program that allows many of its aquifers to be pumped full of toxic waste.
Now the state — which relied on aquifers for at least 60 percent of its total water supply over the past three years — is taking steps to expand that program, possibly sacrificing portions of dozens more groundwater reserves. In some cases, regulators are considering whether to legalize pollution already taking place at a number of sites, based on arguments that the water that will be lost was too dirty to drink or too difficult to access at an affordable price. Officials also may allow the borders of some pollution areas to be extended, jeopardizing new, previously unspoiled parts of the state’s water supply.
California is one of at least 23 states where so-called aquifer exemptions — exceptions to federal environmental law that allow mining or oil and gas companies to dump waste directly into drinking water reserves — have been issued.
Exemptions are granted by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency division that has had difficulties in recordkeeping and has been criticized for its controversial management of groundwater reserves. A 2012 ProPublica investigation disclosed that the federal government had given energy and mining companies permission to pollute U.S. aquifers in more than 1,000 locations, as part of an underground disposal program that allows toxic substances to be disposed of in nearly 700,000 waste wells across the country.
In many cases, the exact locations of the exemptions and the precise boundaries of areas where aquifer pollution was allowed had been left poorly defined, raising concerns that waste might reach adjacent drinking water. Several states, including California, have since admitted they’ve allowed that to happen.