News Column

Fracking Waste Filling Ohio Disposal Wells

July 1, 2013
oil shale

The shale drilling boom that has helped create a huge supply of cheap natural gas continues to bring more and more fracking waste into Ohio.

In 2012, 14.2 million barrels of fracking fluids and oil and gas waste were injected in Ohio disposal wells, according to data compiled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. That's a 12 percent increase from 2011.

That increase was driven by waste removed from Marcellus shale wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. State data show that Ohio disposal wells injected 8.16 million barrels of waste from other states, a 19 percent increase from 2011.

Environmental-advocacy groups, which consider spent fracking fluids a pollution threat to groundwater and streams, said the new numbers heighten their fears.

"I think we've been the sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry long enough," said Teresa Mills, fracking coordinator for the Buckeye Forest Council. "How much can we take before there are more earthquakes and before (drinking water) wells are contaminated?"

Oil and gas waste-disposal wells have operated in Ohio for decades. They drew public scrutiny last year after state officials linked a series of earthquakes in Youngstown in 2011 and 2012 to a nearby disposal well that is no longer operating.

Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said he's concerned that the influx of waste will create disposal delays for companies drilling Utica shale in Ohio.

Natural Resources officials said the wells are safe and that they have the capacity to handle these increases.

Mark Bruce, an agency spokesman, shared records that showed a 5 percent decrease in waste injections during the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2012.

He attributed the decline to a decrease in shale drilling in Pennsylvania and increased recycling of fracking water.

"I don't know if it will continue," Bruce said of the decrease. "I just know that's what we're seeing so far."

Much of the waste comes from fracking, a process that pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep below ground to shatter shale and free trapped oil and gas.

Some of the fluids bubble back up with the gas. Oil and gas wells also produce saltwater contaminated with metals and radioactive materials trapped underground for millions of years.

The flow of fracking waste into Ohio began in 2011 after Pennsylvania oil and gas regulators ordered businesses to stop dumping the salty wastes in that state's streams. Unlike Ohio, Pennsylvania doesn't have the authority to oversee and permit the drilling of its own disposal wells. Because companies have to apply for federal permits, approval of new wells can take months.

There are seven active disposal wells in Pennsylvania, that state's Department of Environmental Protection says. There are 63 disposal wells in West Virginia.

As more waste comes into Ohio, companies are drilling more disposal wells -- 191 so far, Natural Resources says. In January 2012, there were 177.

There also is little that state officials can do to keep out-of-state waste from Ohio wells. Federal commerce protections forbid one state from imposing tariffs or bans on legally shipped commodities from other states.

"We need to be very honest and look at ourselves and understand we are becoming the preferred destination for this waste," said Jed Thorp, manager of the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter.

"We need to figure out what we can do to keep that from happening."

shunt@dispatch.com

@CDEnvironment

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Source: Copyright Columbus Dispatch (OH) 2013


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