The federal government failed vulnerable whale, turtle and fish species when it allowed oil companies to release their waste into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, a conservationist group argues.
The Center for Biological Diversity has put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on notice. Last week, the center filed a 60-day letter of intent to sue, a required precursor to a lawsuit in which the nonprofit conservation group is expected to argue the government is not complying with the Endangered Species Act.
The EPA in September finalized a Clean Water Act permit, which allows oil and gas rigs off the coast of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to flush waste liquids into the Gulf. The Center for Biological Diversity is worried about pollutants from sources like produced water, which is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing that contains chemicals like arsenic and lead.
The EPA has argued it isn't allowing anything into the water that would harm marine wildlife; the conservationist organization contends the agency hasn't looked hard enough to determine whether that's true.
"The (President Donald) Trump administration is letting the oil industry turn our oceans into toxic-waste dumps," the group's attorney Kristen Monsell wrote in a statement. "Only the courts can stop Trump's assault on our oceans."
The EPA regional office did not respond to a request seeking comment, though they have addressed the group's concerns in public records.
"Chemical usage in offshore oil and gas extraction … was examined extensively during development of the (guidelines)," the agency wrote in a response to public comments on the rule.
"EPA has neither observed nor discovered scientific evidence of 'significant adverse changes' in ecosystem diversity, productivity or stability of the biological community as a result of the discharges, no threat to human health through direct exposure to pollutants or consumption of exposed aquatic organisms and no loss of esthetic (sic), recreational, scientific or economic values which is unreasonable in relation to the benefit derived from the discharge."
The Center for Biological Diversity is unconvinced by the EPA's reassurances. Offshore fracking is on the rise, and the agency "has failed to conduct any meaningful review of the environmental impacts of dumping fracking waste into the water," the group wrote in a statement.
That waste includes chemicals like arsenic, lead, mercury and benzene, the release of which may imperil threatened and endangered species. Those include three whale species, turtles such as leatherbacks and loggerheads, sturgeon, grouper and many types of coral, Monsell wrote in her letter to the EPA.
The looming suit comes at a noteworthy time. In addition to the the EPA and U.S. Department of Commerce, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also was given notice. The head of the agency in charge of the country's natural resources took his first official visit to Louisiana earlier this month, during which he promised to help Louisiana leaders fast-track coastal restoration projects, in part to protect the energy industry.
Another copy was sent to the EPA's Region 6 office, which oversees Louisiana and Texas. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a new head of that office Monday. The job went to Anne Idsal, formerly an attorney, chief clerk and deputy land commissioner for the Texas General Land Office.