The state's environmental protection agency does not require operators of drilling-mud dump sites to post assurances that they'll pay for clean-up of the sites.
Nor does the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality require such operators to get training and meet the educational requirements that others who handle hazardous waste must get.
Residents of Prairie and Lonoke counties raised those objections at a mid-October hearing by the ADEQ on a permit request by Prairie County Land Farm to operate a land-application site. The company wants to spread drilling mud and fluid byproducts from shale drilling near Crossroads, in Prairie County near the Lonoke County line.
“I think it's crazy to not have a financial assurance for these types of things,” Sam Ledbetter, a Little Rock attorney who focuses on environmental law and represents landowners and residents of the Crossroads community, said after the hearing. “Clearly this is industrial wastewater, and there ought to be some indication that these guys have the wherewithal to be financially responsible for it,” he said. “I mean, if these guys leave, then who's going to pay for it? What happens if they're just gone one day?”
The ADEQ requires non-municipal wastewater treatment systems, coal and non-coal mining operations, hazardous waste removal operations, and tank service contractors to post bonds or otherwise guarantee they'll take financial responsibility for their operations.
Teresa Marks, who has been ADEQ director for almost two years, said she doesn't know why “no discharge” permits such as the one the Prairie County Land Farm seeks don't require the permit holder to post any kind of financial assurance.
“These permits have been in effect for almost 15 years, and I don't know why they have not looked at bonding requirements before,” Marks said. “I don't know if there was just no need to do it, if there had not been problems in the past — I just don't know.”
Industrial and municipal wastewater treatment facility operators and landfill operators must also obtain licenses from ADEQ certifying they hold a high school diploma or equivalent and have completed 40 hours of training. Licensees also have to pass an exam.
Prairie County Judge Mike Skarda said it's ridiculous that the drilling mud applicators don't have to get licenses.
“I'm a farmer, and to put out herbicides or pesticides on my land I have to go to school and carry a card to buy chemicals, but these people don't have a lot of requirements placed on them,” Skarda said. “Those folks at the meeting made a really good point, because the people that own the disposal sites take the samples of the water and the soil. You have to trust that they're going to be honest, but they may not be.”
The permit would allow Prairie County Land Farm to dump drilling fluids into two reserve pits and then apply them on the land. The operations are controversial: There are currently 13 land-application sites in Arkansas. ADEQ inspection records exist for 10 of those and every one has been cited for violations — pumping drilling fluids directly onto the ground (they are supposed to be spread around with a sprinkler system), exceeding the capacity of the pits, expired permits, the presence of oil waste and failure to take and submit soil samples.
Marks said she may ask the Legislature for the authority to require companies that dispose of drilling waste to be bonded. “We're looking at other states that allow these types of operations and we certainly understand the concern that there might be some kind of need for financial assurance. So we are looking at that as possible legislation in the next session.”
Marks said the agency would be willing to explore ways to impose licensing as well.
Both the Prairie and Lonoke County quorum courts have passed resolutions asking ADEQ to refrain from issuing the permit until more research can be done on the overall impact of such sites. Lonoke County Justice of the Peace Mark Edwards said if something goes wrong at the disposal site, the burden would be too much for the county to bear.
“Because it's likely there is going to be some pollution, there's going to also be some clean-up involved,” Edwards said. “I know the county can't afford to clean that up. The owner could just file bankruptcy, turn around and walk away from this, wash their hands of it completely, and they would not be financially obligated.”
“I think ADEQ needs to put the brakes on this and take some time to figure out the best way to handle some of this stuff,” Ledbetter says. “If they don't have the authority to do what needs to be done to reduce the impact of these operations, then they don't need to be issuing permits.”