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When violations are identified – such as the 140 times waste was illegally injected and noted in the regulatory reports – the consequences can be minimal, and only in rare cases do transgressions rise to the level of criminal prosecution. In the three years of national data reviewed by ProPublica, which included more than 24,000 formal notices of violations, only one case was referred to criminal investigators.
Usually, violations result in citations or informal warnings. If operators do not address violations, then modest fines may be levied; in some cases, wells are temporarily shut down. There is no central source of information on the size of fines, but an audit of Louisiana’s injection program provides a glimpse: In 2011, the state collected an average of $158 for each violation.
After three deaths, two federal worker safety investigations and a criminal prosecution, few injection sites nationwide received as much regulatory scrutiny as those in Rosharon, Texas. Yet, despite all the attention, the wells there later failed on the most basic level.
On Feb. 17, 2010, thousands of gallons of waste that had been deposited into these wells gurgled to the surface in what the Railroad Commission described as a “breakout.” Materials injected far below the earth had managed to migrate back up to the surface, perhaps through an old well missed by regulators.
As of this June, investigators were still analyzing whether the chemicals injected underneath the site had reached water supplies.
This report was originally published on ProPublica.org.
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