Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Going after polluters

Here is a shocker: The state Department of Environmental Quality reports that those waste pits that commercial operators built in the hills north and east of here to handle gas drilling refuse are poisoning the environment.

It turns out that the people who got permits to build the 11 “land farms” to hold the wastes did not put in the protections that their permits required, and the land, streams and underground water in the neighborhoods are being adulterated at a rapid rate. The department made the companies stop operating in December, and it has revoked permits in Lonoke and White counties.

The director of the agency said she hoped the others would start operating the sludge lakes as they are supposed to under the provisions of the permits that the agency gave them. She doesn’t want to make them close or otherwise impede the drilling for gas in the Fayetteville Shale.

Who will say that they are surprised at this revolting development — well, besides the cynics who never expected the department to do anything? While the agency by law is supposed to be the fierce protector of the natural state, its governing board by law is made up mostly of representatives of interests whose work ordinarily degrades the environment and needs policing. In the end, regulation and enforcement are always notoriously lax, and industry knows the record. It is an invitation to cut corners and to shave inconvenient steps that only serve to depress profits because there is no reason to expect a reckoning.

The mere name that the industry gave these wastewater lakes — land farms — ought to have been a tipoff. We are a nation of euphemists. If you give something heinous a sweet name it will not be so bad. But it always is.

“It is certainly disheartening that there was so much blatant noncompliance with the terms of the permits,” said the director, Teresa Marks. The drillers are not supposed to put oil-based wastes in the ponds but they apparently did. The agency left it up to the operators to take their own samples around the ponds and report the results. Marks said her handful of inspectors found that the results were not accurate and that the companies were vastly “overapplying” wastewater.

“It makes you realize that there needs to be action taken to deal with environmental harm that might have occurred and might occur in the future,” the director said. Ah, the beginning of enlightenment, and perhaps of justice.