Ohio’s Class II injection wells, depicted on a map as red dots, look like a rash spread over the eastern half of the state. These are end points for fracking waste.
While regulators and industry officials say properly constructed and regulated injection wells are a safe and effective answer to the growing waste stream from shale gas production, others view them as nothing more than sanctioned dumping of industrial toxins. Concerns over the long-term consequences of the practice are compounded by a lack of information about the composition of fracking waste, and distrust of an industry that operates outside of the authority of local jurisdictions and the line of public vision.
There are currently 179 wells in Ohio accepting drilling waste, much of it from Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, I went to see what one of these red dots on the map actually looks like. I was in Oberlin to give talks at the college and a nearby Quaker-inspired retirement community called Kendal at Oberlin. My host and guide was John Elder, an Oberlin College alumnus and Kendall resident with a broad background ranging from elder-community planner to Harvard theologian. Joining us on the field trip was Dennis Hubbard, a geology professor at the college.
We drove east from Oberlin on a series of county roads though a flat landscape of working class single-story homes -- the modest suburban homogeneity sporadically broken by a 19th century farmhouse or an empty field. The neighborhoods, cleared for farming in the 1800s, were later parceled into the kind of post-World War II American dream grounded in conformity, order, and gainful employment at nearby steel and auto plants. Those jobs are disappearing, and some homes are fairing better than others under the weight of change. These kinds of rust-belt neighborhoods are the underdogs in the 21st century’s post-manufacturing economy, and you can’t help but root for them.
John slowed and turned his Toyota van through an open gate onto a dirt lane running along a hedgerow flanking a dormant field amid houses in the Town of Eaton. Within several hundred feet of the road, three holding tanks and a chain link fence came into view. A solitary red tanker truck was on the far end, hooked up by a hose. (I later learned the tanks provide means for operators to recover any remaining traces of gas or oil from the waste before it’s injected.) The entire operation could have fit into a small barn. This was the visible aspect of the Suater well, which extended underground for 20 acres.
The Sauter well was developed in the mid 1980s to produce gas from Clinton Sandstone at a depth of 2,500 feet, a venture that proved unfruitful. In 1985, it was converted into a Class II injection well. It’s relatively small, and used mostly by conventional drilling operators. According to records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, between 500,000 and 2 million gallons of waste per year is injected under this lot -- less than what is typically produced by a single shale gas well. The red dots to the east, closer to booming Marcellus Shale gas fields in Pennsylvania and new exploration ventures into the Utica Shale in Eastern Ohio, represent busier and more conspicuous operations. According to a report by Aaron Marshall of The Plain Dealer, state records showed Ohio was on pace to store a record amount of drilling waste in 2012 -- nearly 14 million barrels (588 million gallons) -- with about 56 percent coming from out of state, and from Pennsylvania in particular.
It’s likely that Ohio’s potential as a waste importer will continue to expand in the foreseeable future. Aaron reports that applications are pending or have recently been approved for 35 new injection wells in the state. In the northeast corner of Portage County, east of Eaton Township (in Loraine County), work has resumed on a cluster of 14 production and disposal wells that will operate around the clock to accommodate 270 to 300 tankers daily. Public concern has interrupted the plans, but not stopped them. Applications were temporarily suspended statewide in 2012 after state officials determined a dozen earthquakes in 2011, including a 4.0 trembler in Youngstown, were caused by injections wells along a previously unknown fault line. (See report here.) Permits resumed last fall, after officials modified construction standards and included a provision for seismic testing at the discretion of ODNR staff.
Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials are working on a proposal to support the shale gas boom by opening inland waterways to ship fracking waste. The policy would allow flowback, which includes fracking chemicals, brine and other waste that comes from deep formations, to be transported by barge on the Allegany and Ohio Rivers from burgeoning gas fields in Pennsylvania.
Ohio is a favored destination for drilling waste partly due to geology, partly due to its proximity to Pennsylvania, and partly due to regulatory matters. In 1983 the EPA, the body that regulates injection wells, granted Ohio officials authority to oversee those operating within the state. Ohio qualified for this status, called “primacy,” under the Reagan administration. It did this through an application process to show it meets minimum federal requirements to protect drinking water sources. Primacy has since been a key to Ohio’s waste disposal business, because it keeps permitting, record keeping, and inspections in the hands of state officials, easing the kind of bureaucratic hassles associated with federally regulated waste disposal programs.
Another factor comes into play, and it’s not limited to Ohio: The drilling and fracking industry is exempt from federal hazardous waste disposal laws. Consequently, fracking waste can be injected into Class II wells, which have less stringent specifications and lower costs than Class I wells mandated for hazardous waste. For drilling or fracking operators from Pennsylvania, it’s cheaper to get rid of waste in Class II wells, and cheaper still in Ohio, which has both the regulations and subterranean space, such as the Sauter well.
The red tanker at the Sauter well was operated by a burly man in a t-shirt and jeans. He approached us in a manner that suggested varying degrees of menace and curiosity and waited for us to explain ourselves. He fingered an unlit cigarette. His boss didn’t say anything about us being there, he said in a southern drawl.
Dennis, dressed in jeans, boots, t-shirt and work vest, looks like a man who has spent much of his ample career in the field. Dennis did the talking for our party, and his confidence in the subject, along with his observation that “there are people on all sides of this issue,” seemed to gain some purchase with the truck driver. I didn’t want to discourage the conversation by pulling out a note pad, so I left them to talk, trusting that I would be able to draw on state records to flesh out what little was visible from the scene.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Data base has online production records that show the early history of the Sauter well, when it was developed by Dome Producing, but nothing since it was converted to an injection well in the early 1990s under the ownership of S & H Water Service. Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the DNR, explained that the agency was still adding to its online data base, and he forwarded me files that I had requested. They included 10 notices of violations between 1991 and 2009 for leaks, substandard equipment specifications, missing records, and a complaint by a town zoning official on behalf of residents about noise, smells and truck traffic.
Citations are not unusual for injection and production wells, and it’s hard to gauge their significance and effectiveness in the broader context of things. ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten offered this perspective in a June, 2012 piece for Scientific America:
A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.
Lustgarten cites an injection well in Chico, Texas as one example. Despite engineering models and calculations, officials had no idea the well would fail until one day in 2003 when, as described by Chico Public Works Director Ed Cowley, waste began bubbling up from the ground from other points on the property like artesian springs. How often does this sort of thing happen? Lustgarten’s attempt to quantify information – including the rate of failure on injection wells -- based on EPA records lead to dead ends due to a lack of information.
… the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.
In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011 — the last time the EPA issued a public update — less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.
The waste is not subject to testing or disclosure requirements, so its hard to know what is in a given load, but flowback from oil and gas wells typically contain salts, naturally occurring radio isotopes, heavy metals, petroleum byproducts such as benzene and various volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed array of chemicals used in fracking. Accidents sometimes happen, and sometimes they make news. Last spring, an injection well tank exploded in Parker County Texas after a “vapor management system” failed and gasses backed up into the storage tank, according to the fire marshal, as reported by the Weatherford Democrat. There were no injuries. Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze and hazardous waste crews were dispatched to contain the resulting spill. In 2003, an explosion killed three operators who were pumping waste from trucks into a well in Rosharon, Texas.
In Ohio, John Elder and I left Dennis to chat with the tanker operator and we walked across the street where a local activist was talking with a neighbor. With only a fraction of the operation visible above ground, the telltale sign of an injection well’s status is truck traffic. And traffic to this well, along with news about the earthquakes in other areas and general concerns about Ohio’s status as a drilling waste importer, had made the Sauter well an item of curiosity and suspicion. Activists and some community members saw the well as both precedent and harbinger, and they were making inquiries of their own.
John Pais, a member of Oberlin’s Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, was chatting with a woman who lives across the street in a tidy Cape Cod style house with a swing set in the yard. It’s where she and her husband raised their children, now mostly grown. Pais was jotting notes on a yellow legal pad in the interest of self-education and to share with officials from the town zoning board. The woman’s husband was fighting brain cancer, he learned. The woman noted trucks coming and going, and something that once smelled like burning rubber for days on end, but although she had lived there for a significant part of her life, she knew little about the history or current status of the operation “or what they are taking out of there.” I explained that it was an injection, well – that they were putting stuff in rather than taking it out. “They’re putting stuff in?” she asked, incredulously.
I didn’t see, in this particular field trip, the Big Story: hard evidence that injections wells are categorically bad, or reasons to believe they are harmless. But I did see a recurring theme in the broader story of local residents waking up to regional impacts of shale gas development: a disconnect between the industry and the communities in which it operates. It’s likely that people who live across the street from a chicken farm, auto plant, forgery, saw mill, furniture manufacture, trash incinerator, or quarry sometimes have issues with their business neighbors, but those issues are generally guided by an understanding of what they are dealing with, how they operate, and whether they conform to local ordinances. Unresolved issues can go before the town board. Likewise, the functions of a quarry truck, a milk truck, a UPS truck, or a manure spreader are familiar to the people who see them, and perhaps their operators less guarded about people approaching them for information.
Regardless, people tend not to like waste disposal operations in their neighborhoods, and there is a Home Rule movement afoot in Ohio working against injection wells. As Marshal reports in the Plain Dealer, nearly 63 percent of voters in the Town of Mansfield, in the southern part of the state, approved a home rule charter amendment that opens the door for local municipalities, rather than the state, to site injection wells. A waste disposal company with state approval to operate a pair of injections wells in the town is challenging the case in a federal court in Cleveland. Meanwhile, injection well bans passed in Cincinnati, Yellow Springs and Niles will serve as similar legal tests for the jurisdiction of local governments.
Waste disposal is an essential component to cheap energy production, but it is not comprehensively factored into the cost of doing business. Is shale gas production, as many proponents suggest, an eco-friendly bridge to a sustainable future and if so, have the legacy costs of injection wells been accounted for? Can large (and undetermined) volumes of undisclosed waste injected into the ground be counted on to remain put despite geological changes and physical deterioration of well casings over generations? More broadly, how is a well that the government sanctions as a waste repository different from a production well where a large percentage of the frack fluid pumped into the ground to stimulate production remains unrecovered?
The risks and rewards of shale gas development need to be deeply considered. Shale gas development offers energy independence to this country over the short term, and carbon fuels in general offer the promise of relief to energy-impoverished countries striving for the same standard of living that Americans have enjoyed for generations. But it’s hard to weigh all the factors fully and fairly over the long term with an industry that tends to operate out of public view.