A collection of environmental advocacy groups sued the US Environmental Protection Agency, saying the Government has failed to adequately regulate the disposal of waste generated by oil and gas drilling.
In particular, the lawsuit seeks to force the agency to impose stricter rules on the disposal of wastewater, including that from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The wastewater is typically pumped into underground wells - a practice that has been linked to a growing number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, Colorado, Ohio and other states.
The groups argue that the EPA has neglected to revise its existing rules for nearly three decades, despite acknowledging in the late 1980s that stricter requirements were needed for the handling of oil and gas drilling waste.
"These rules are almost 30 years overdue," said Adam Kron, a senior lawyer at the Environmental Integrity Project, which filed the lawsuit in a Washington federal court along with a half dozen other advocacy groups.
He said that despite the millions of gallons of wastewater and hundreds of tonnes of solid waste that a drilling well can produce each year, the EPA has kept vague, inadequate regulations. "It's definitely a more waste-intensive industry than ever before. If new rules were needed in 1988, they are certainly needed now."
In addition, the groups want the EPA to ban the practice of dumping fracking wastewater on fields and roads, where it potentially could pollute drinking water sources.
They also want the agency to require that ponds and landfills where drilling and fracking waste are dumped built to certain specifications and adequately lined to prevent leaks. The lawsuit asks the court to set strict deadlines for the EPA to adopt updated rules.
"Waste from the oil and gas industry is very often toxic and should be treated that way," Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defence Council, said. "Right now, companies can get rid of their toxic mess in any number of dangerous ways, from spraying it on icy roads, to sending it to landfills with our everyday household trash, to injecting it underground where it can endanger drinking water and trigger earthquakes.
"EPA must step in and protect our communities and drinking water from the carcinogens, radioactive material and other dangerous substances that go hand-in-hand with oil and gas waste."
Last year, the EPA concluded a years-long review of US fracking operations practices, saying it had found no evidence of widespread damage to drinking water supplies. But the agency did warn about the potential for contamination from the controversial technique, which played a major role in the oil and gas production boom in the United States in recent years.
1 Fracking involves the injection of liquids into underground rock layers at high pressure to extract oil and gas trapped inside.
2 But scientists also have linked the deep wastewater disposal wells associated with the practice to the startling increase in seismic activity across the central United States in recent years, particularly in Oklahoma.
3 There, oil companies and their representatives have largely denied responsibility for the quakes, or suggested that the links are greatly exaggerated.
4 According to the EPA, an estimated 7.5 billion litres of wastewater are injected each day into tens of thousands of underground wells operating around the country. Most oil and gas injection wells are located in Texas, California, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Waste from the oil and gas industry is very often toxic and should be treated that way
"It's hard to deny that in certain geographic locations with certain geologic circumstances, we've had some problems with some wastewater wells," AJ Ferate, vice-president of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, told the Post last year. But "to make a blanket assertion that wastewater wells are always the cause, I don't know that I can agree with that."
The Obama administration last year introduced tougher restrictions on oil and gas fracking operations on public lands, seeking to lower the risk of water contamination.
Those rules, issued by the Interior Department, would apply only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Companies that drill on public lands would be subject to stricter design standards for wells and also for holding tanks and ponds where liquid wastes are stored.
They also would have to publicly disclose any chemical additives to the liquid injected into fracking wells, which typically consists mainly of water and sand, with small amounts of other substances that can range from coffee grinds to acids and salts.
Those regulations, opposed by industry groups who argued the requirements could increase production costs around the country, have been challenged in federal court and remain in legal limbo.
An EPA spokesperson declined comment, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The groups behind the federal suit originally filed a notice of their intent to sue EPA last August, saying they would move forward unless the agency took action on the issue.