A DEQ worker collects samples from Alkali below where produced water from the Moneta Divide field is discharged. (Wyoming DEQ)

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.” 

Opinion

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. 

To date, DEQ has failed to hold industry accountable for the damage and cleanup.

Jill Morrison

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.

Jill Morrison

Jill Morrison worked for the Powder River Basin Resource Council for 31 years., first as a community organizer and later as the executive director.

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  1. What happened to Fish Creek(one of Wy. premier trout streams) in Teton County, from year-round sludge spreading and shallow commercial injection of septic affluent into a rising aquifer is truly sad,

  2. I too, am shocked. Not just at the DEQ in this article but also that the US Fish and Wildlife can’t/don’t uphold the laws (see the January 29, 2022 article on airborne hunting over public land by Mike Koshmrl). Wyoming’s Wild West mentality of independence and disregard for laws enables corporations and special interests to plunder natural resources and reap the benefits to line their own pockets. Of course, that is not an accurate generalization of all Wyomingites but it seems to be prevalent among those in power. Probably not a new trend, either. Obviously the economy is run on economics but it seems to benefit a handful of people and disregard the natural resources and the rest of the population.
    I commend WYOFile for covering a such a diversity of issues and for so many well written, engaging and concise articles. Thank you WyoFile!

  3. Thanks for the article as it did prod me to look at the NOVs and while the big polluters may get some relief at least they are forcing compliance on those polluters that are degrading water quality around cities and towns. I would contend that Wyoming DEQ has a tough job as many of the water polluters have the belief that they do not need to get a permit or comply with the standards. In addition, it takes a great deal of steps to get to these enforcement actions costing time and resources.

    I was actually kind of shocked as I went through the Water Quality Enforcement Actions to see the number of trailer parks, which are located near water courses, that are out of compliance with the discharge requirements. I will be a little more suspect of the Laramie River as I traverse the Greenbelt. I will also wonder how many more septic systems are discharging to our water courses that have not been identified?

    Here is the link to the enforcement actions for WQD and there are similar sites for Air and Land enforcement.

    https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1dBvPWBSHZqcoyU6s7KKgMAtA–_O4O9h

  4. Keep the issue alive JM. I have had personal dealings with WY DEQ (Rock Springs compaction with cranes) and if you are green in the least bit, DEQ mgt. should make you blow your top. Windfarm raptor killings, pollution of the waterways in Wyoming, failure to hold the Coal Bed Methane development to the agreed upon parameters of that fiasco, non-existent mine reclamations, etc.: If WY DEQ is involved, inevitably the decision has been made in favor of corporate interests, not the good people of Wyomine

  5. This is the prime reason that we need to start funding our state government & its agencies—like DEQ— from our own pockets instead of smiling about no income tax while our government is bought & paid for by the fossil fuel industry.
    Right now we have the best DEQ that fossil fuel extraction can buy. It is little wonder that DEQ answer only to those who really pay their salaries.

  6. I am shocked and then again not shocked. I realize that gas and oil is sacred here but it is time to change before it’s too late. I know people are scared to have the jobs they were used to being there aren’t there anymore. The reason mankind has been so successful on this earth is because of our ability to adapt and change. Change is hard but sometimes necessary. It would help if we could get the alternatives ie clean energy like wind power and nuclear energy set up and people given jobs but it’s going to take time. Adapt and change or go extinct. That’s it. But stop polluting and destroy the earth we live on.

  7. It would be interesting to see the number of NOV’s ( notice of violations) filed against energy producers that actually resulted in a monetary fine.

    In the 15 years that I was involved in environmental compliance i can think of one instance that the DEQ actually collected a fine from a producer. The vast majority of violations that were filed were usually forgiven and never collected. If there is no actionable consequence for violating the operating permit, why pretend to enforce them?

    DEQ will continue to be in the pocket of the energy companies unless changes are made.

  8. Who was that child that didn’t die of leukemia? The number of lives saved by enforcing strict standards for industry is impossible to count, but the documentation from around the world shows that when standards are relaxed, more people get sick & die.

    The public record is clear: Mineral producers need to be told what they can do, and what they cannot do. We need science based limits, not wishful thinking to guide policies & enforcement. When crime pays . . . it happens!