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Environmental Blog

Federal Court Dismisses RCRA Suit Seeking Limitations on Oklahoma Wastewater Injection Wells

On April 4, 2017, Western District of Oklahoma Judge Stephen Friot dismissed an action brought under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) by the Sierra Club against four deep fluid injection well operators. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants’ use of wastewater injection wells presented an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment” in violation of RCRA because it supposedly causes “waste-induced earthquakes.” The Sierra Club sought a wide range of injunctive relief, asking the court to order defendants to substantially reduce the volume of wastewater they inject into disposal wells, reinforce vulnerable structures, and establish a seismic activity monitoring center to further analyze (and predict) the potential for seismic effects of underground injection of oilfield wastes. 

Judge Friot granted defendants’ motions to dismiss under the Burford abstention and primary jurisdiction doctrines before reaching defendants’ substantive RCRA arguments. Pursuant to the Burford abstention doctrine, federal courts may decline to interfere with proceedings or orders of state administrative agencies where timely and adequate state-level review is available. The Court reasoned that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (“OCC”) “has established and is operating its own authorized program to regulate these wells” and “has taken action to address the seismic activity which plaintiff maintains is linked to the Arbuckle disposal wells.” Oklahoma law also provides that any person affected by an OCC order may apply to the OCC for repeal, amendment, modification, or supplement of that order. The court also held that the OCC has primary jurisdiction over the harm alleged by the plaintiff for similar reasons. Judge Friot reasoned that the OCC was better equipped than the court to address seismicity concerns associated with fluid injection activities, and has “taken a series of actions, in response to seismic activity, to reduce the volume of wastewater injected into disposal wells.” The court also found that the OCC “has demonstrated diligence in resolving” seismicity issues, and, given its “scientific and technical expertise,” is the appropriate body to grant the type of injunctive relief requested by the plaintiff.

In closing, Judge Friot described the reality of being an Oklahoma resident – implying that he too lived with the tremors. “Every night, more than a million Oklahomans go to bed with reason to wonder whether they will be awakened by the muffled boom which precedes, by an instant, the shaking of the ground under their homes.” Finally, Judge Friot expressed his confidence in the seriousness of the OCC’s regulatory efforts, by noting that “responding to this earthquake activity is serious business, requiring serious regulatory action. The record in this case plainly demonstrates that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission has responded energetically to that challenge.”

Read the order dismissing plaintiff’s complaint in Sierra Club v. Chesapeake Operating, LLC, No. 5:16-cv-00134, here.

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Jay Rothrock

Jay Rothrock Senior Associate

Lawrence Winsor

Lawrence Winsor Senior Associate