Environment & Health

In the Shadow of BP, Small Spills Abound

Both the federal government and news organizations have responded to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a flurry of hearings, reports, and investigations, many of which we highlighted last week. But a couple of recent stories are reminders of the smaller but steady stream of minor leaks and spills that poison water and kill wildlife with regularity.

In Texas, for example, more than 500+ spills dumped more than 87,000 gallons of oil poured into state waterways last year. The Texas Tribune says the state's regulators are well prepared for offshore spills, but in many states, local agencies simply do not have the resources to police drilling operations.

A recent investigation by the Colorado Independent reveals that the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has a backlog of unresolved cases of water and soil contamination from gas drilling dating back years. One incident sent a man to the hospital with benzene poisoning. In a number of cases, no fines have been levied despite media coverage and the companies' admissions of responsibility.

A major investigation by ProPublica earlier this year showed the extent of the problem. Looking at 22 states that have expanded gas drilling recently, Abrahm Lustgarten found “that the nation's capacity to enforce its environmental protections is weakening.” The story shows that many state agencies, which regulate and oversee much of the country’s oil and gas drilling, simply do not have the resources to do their jobs. In order to visit each of West Virginia's 55,222 gas wells once a year, the state's inspectors would have to visit nine wells per day each, working 365 days a year. The result of this gap in resources and need are spills in Colorado, Pennsylvania and other states.

Coverage of all these spills has evidently made an impression in Washington, where the newly unveiled Senate climate bill reportedly includes provisions that would allow states to veto drilling off their coasts and also would require disclosure of some of the chemicals used in drilling for natural gas. If both gas and offshore drilling continue to expand, the daunting task of policing these operations will only grow.

Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, the Minerals Management Service continues to prove itself unfit for its regulatory task. Apparently, MMS allowed dozens of companies to drill wells—including the one Deepwater Horizon was drilling—without necessary permits to protect wildlife. In addition, the agency has systematically ignored the concerns of its own scientists and engineers about safety and environmental issues around offshore drilling. As the Center for Biological Diversity's Kierán Suckling told the Times, “The agency seems to think its mission is to help the oil industry evade environmental laws.”

About the reporter

Nicholas Kusnetz

Nicholas Kusnetz

Nicholas Kusnetz is a freelance journalist in New York.

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