The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is failing to live up to its mission “to protect, conserve and enhance the quality of Wyoming’s environment for the benefit of current and future generations.”
DEQ is a prime example of a regulatory agency that is not serving the public interest or its mission but instead the corporate interests it is supposed to regulate. This phenomenon is known as “regulatory capture.” It means a regulatory agency like DEQ is dominated by the politics of corporate interests it regulates and not its regulatory mission to protect the public interest. DEQ does have many dedicated employees, but unfortunately Wyoming politics seem to put corporate interests above those of lower-level staff and the public interest they are trying to serve.
The failure of DEQ to protect Wyoming’s water and air at the expense of catering to political interests and corporate polluters is evident if you have been paying attention. The recent effort by DEQ to circumvent Clean Air Act requirements and allow the Jim Bridger coal plant to keep emitting toxic air emissions is one example. In the realm of oil and gas, DEQ is allowing Wyoming’s freshwater resources to be polluted by oil and gas wastewater being discharged into our streams, rivers and reservoirs. This discharge into our freshwater streams can kill aquatic life, riparian vegetation, trees and in some cases birds, wildlife and livestock. Discharged wastewater can also pollute our drinking water. In recent years two communities, Pavillion and Clark, have had groundwater polluted by oil and gas activities. DEQ’s “voluntary remediation program” was charged with making sure industry cleaned up that contamination, but that has not happened.
Another recent example is the decades-long failure of DEQ to limit polluted oil and gas wastewater that is dumped into small streams that flow into Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River. Recently, a company called Aethon bought the Moneta Divide oil and gas resources from Encana. Aethon then decided it was too expensive to treat its polluted discharge and fracking wastewater, so it closed its wastewater treatment plant. DEQ allowed the company to continue dumping the untreated polluted discharge water into creeks that flow into Boysen. If it were not for the recent actions of conservation groups Powder River Basin Resource Council, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the oil and gas industry would be dumping four times as much pollution down streams flowing into Boysen Reservoir. The burden to hire experts to demonstrate the flaws in industry’s proposal did not fall on DEQ, as it should have, but was borne by these non-profit organizations.
The groups’ investigations into what is still happening to these streams flowing into Boysen Reservoir is alarming. The oil-and-gas-polluted discharge, which has been flowing for years, has caused extensive erosion, left black gunk for miles and damaged the aquatic life and character of the small receiving stream, Alkali Creek. Above the discharge the stream is clear, but below it the stream oozes black sediment. One video captured by DEQ employees assessing the stream shows fish swimming away from discharge water as it joins with the receiving stream, Badwater Creek. To date, DEQ has failed to hold industry accountable for the damage and cleanup.
The oil and gas wastewater that DEQ permits to be dumped into our streams includes a toxic brew of pollutants. Among these pollutants are chlorides and salts, sulfates and sulfide, radioactive materials, barium, magnesium and benzene, toluene, xylenes and ethylbenzene — and the list goes on. Industry responds by proposing to do away with the problem by relaxing the permit requirements or downgrading the stream to make it legally acceptable to dump this pollution. DEQ, the regulator, caters to these requests to remove what industry claims as unnecessary or onerous permitting requirements, just like when industry shut down the treatment plant, and now proposes to downgrade streams so they can dump more pollution into them. Most troubling of all, DEQ usually grants those requests — unless those of us in the public stand up and work to protect our water and air.
The job of protecting our limited water, air, land, fisheries and wildlife depends on you, the citizen, to get engaged and help protect Wyoming from an industry and a state agency that places corporate profits over our valuable and limited freshwater and public resources.