Under the proposed NPDES General Permit (LAG260000), oil and gas companies would be allowed to discharge produced water and other oil and gas waste streams into Louisiana territorial seas without regard to concentrations and cumulative effects of toxic and radioactive substances. The territorial seas are open seas that extend up to 3 miles from the Louisiana coast.
Location of Gulf Lease Blocks containing facilities that are currently allowed to discharge Produced Waters directly into the Gulf; in relation to the Gulf "Dead Zone"
NPDES Permit Program
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is a national program that controls point source discharges into U.S. waters. In Louisiana, NPDES permits are issued by Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). Facilities discharging pollutants directly to surface waters are required to obtain a NPDES permit. The NPDES General Permit for discharging oil and gas wastes into territorial seas, issued by LDEQ in 1997, expired in 2002. 118 oil and gas facilities are currently operating under this expired permit. A new NPDES Permit was proposed by LDEQ in 2008 to cover the 118 facilities as well as 150 additional wells anticipated to be constructed in Louisiana territorial seas. No environmental Impact Statement was prepared to assess the impact of these new wells on the aquatic biota in territorial seas.
While the new NPDES General Permit is similar to its predecessor, it differs in one important aspect – it allows an unlimited number of new wells without further evaluation of their cumulative impact. Under the guise of streamlining the permitting process, the NPDES permit is issued for a specific site rather than individual wells. Each specific site can then institute a number of new wells through a simple Notice of Intent to the LDEQ, that is to say, the operators are not required to obtain a separate permit for each well. An unregulated number of wells at each specific site will result in cumulative discharges that are harmful to aquatic biota and their habitats.
Produced water is the largest waste stream generated by oil and gas facilities, and has been found to be toxic to aquatic biota and hazardous to human health. Produced waters generated in the Gulf of Mexico are known to contain at least 50 different chemical and radioactive compounds. The NPDES General Permit only requires that concentrations of seven compounds be monitored before discharge to the territorial seas (see the complete White Paper for more information).
Even though radium can cause cancer, there is no limit to the amount that can be released; specific discharge limitations are not set in the proposed NPDES General Permit, and did not exist in the previous general permit that expired in 2002. By allowing an unlimited number of wells under the same permit without further scrutiny by LDEQ, harmful accumulation of toxic and radioactive constituents in aquatic organisms or contamination of sea floor sediment, will not be assessed. Instead, the proposed NPDES General Permit proposes a dilution theory in which formulas have been devised to determine the concentrations of radium in produced water that can be discharged from a facility.
The proposed LDEQ NPDES permit is contrary to the intent and regulations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA specifies that concentrations of radium greater than 50 picoCuries per liter (pCi/L) is considered hazardous waste, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) prohibits the discharge of liquid waste from nuclear facilities with radium concentrations greater than 60 pCi/L. As discussed in section 3.3.5, Ra-226 and Ra-228 concentrations in produced waters from the Gulf of Mexico were measured as high as 1,565 pCi/L and 1,509 pCi/L, respectively, well above the limits established by the US EPA and NRC. Radium accumulates in the tissues of the edible aquatic organisms (see Sections 4.1), thereby increasing the potential for humans to develop cancer and other harmful non-carcinogenic affects. By means of comparison, the EPA recommends that a person should not be exposed to a radiation dose of more than 10 millirems a year. A person consuming edible aquatic organisms from Louisiana territorial seas for one year could receive a radiation dose as high as 111 millirems, i.e., a radiation dose above the NRC's regulatory limit for operating nuclear power plants (See the complete White Paper for more information about human radiation exposure through consumption of shellfish).
Many of the most hazardous compounds found in produced waters are not regulated by the proposed NPDES General Permit. As further discussed in Sections3.3.1 to 3.3.5, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and the volatile organic compound group BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) are known to be the most toxic and environmentally stable fraction of produced water, yet these compounds are not regulated by the general permit. Elevated levels of PAHs and BTEX have been found in produced waters in the Gulf of Mexico well over the regulatory limits set forth by the EPA. Inorganic compounds in produced water increase the salinity of produced water, causing them to sink to the bottom of the ocean when discharged. Produced water plumes on the seafloor poison and kill benthic organisms that stabilize the ocean environment and are often consumed by humans.
Criticisms and Recommendations
We strongly recommend that LDEQ begin a full Environmental Impact Statement process, including a scoping hearing, before issuing NPDES Permit LAG260000. The effluent discharge limitations set forth in the proposed NPDES Permit do not protect aquatic biota from the toxicity of discharged produced water, and this in turn puts the health of humans and the economic health of the Louisiana fishing industry at risk. This general permit fails to consider the cumulative effects of produced water on aquatic biota in Louisiana territorial seas. If essentially unregulated multiple wells surround the habitat of ecologically sensitive aquatic organisms, such as oyster beds, the cumulative volume of waste discharged in the vicinity of the habitat will create severely hazardous conditions for these organisms.
We also recommend that LDEQ set discharge limitations for individual wells and for a greater number of hazardous compounds found in produced water. Discharge limitations for concentrations of radium must also be established and specified in the NPDES general permit as 50 pCi/L, the level recognized as hazardous waste by the US EPA (See the complete White Paper for more recommendations).