Ohio Environmentalists, Oil Companies Battle State Over Dumping of Fracking Wastewater

Ten years ago, Tim Kettler asked local officials to stop spreading liquid waste from fracking on the road near his home in Warsaw, Ohio, because he was worried that the fluid would contaminate a pond where he gets his drinking water. 

They complied with his request, but the practice continues in many other places across the state, and threatens to taint its groundwater with radioactivity and a cocktail of other contaminants in the residue from natural gas drilling.

Water from the pond, downhill from the road where the salty waste was once spread, remains clean and drinkable, but that hasn’t stopped Kettler and other activists in Ohio from campaigning against a practice that has been used for years to de-ice roads in the winter and keep dust down in the summer. 

They say that high levels of two kinds of radium in the waste, known as produced water, as well as its extreme salinity, is already damaging the environment where the brine is spread and will eventually find its way into underground sources where people get their drinking water.

In a related development, lawyers for two Ohio oil and gas companies filed suit in the spring of 2022 against the owners of wells where produced water from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia is being injected for long-term disposal claiming their business is being hurt by the leakage of waste into production wells. The suits were dismissed but are being appealed, adding to pressure on the fracking industry, and the State of Ohio, from an unlikely pairing of interest groups.

Millions of gallons of produced water from fracking in the region have been pumped into more than 200 underground injection wells—either purpose-built or reused oil and gas wells—as oil and gas production has surged in the Appalachian states, raising fears that the natural environment is being contaminated, and that public water sources are being poisoned.

“Putting our water at risk, especially in the area where there are known earthquake faults, just seems pretty wrong-headed,” said Kettler, who owns a wastewater business, and is a member of the Ohio Brine Task Force, an advocacy group that works to stop produced water from fracking from being spread on roads. 

“The constituents of this wastewater are known to be toxic and radioactive. Putting that on the ground, especially where people use surface water for their domestic water supply, as I do—where runoff is inevitable—is a problem.”

Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources says about 22 million barrels of produced water from Ohio sources—924 million gallons—were pumped into injection wells in 2022, and another 12 million barrels—504 million gallons—came from out-of-state sources, including Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvania recycled or reused about 93 percent of produced water from fracking in 2021, when it produced a record-high 7.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, underlining its position as the second-biggest U.S. producer of natural gas after Texas, according to its Department of Environmental Protection. 

Produced water contains dozens of highly toxic chemicals along with naturally occuring poisons like arsenic and radioactive material like radium 226 and 228. It is far saltier than ocean water, which makes it deadly to most plants and freshwater life. 

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group for the Appalachian natural gas industry, said its wastewater policy protects water sources.

“Our members are minimizing the need for freshwater withdrawals while reducing truck traffic for disposal,” said the coalition’s president, David Callahan, in a statement. “Managing water and waste are key parts of developing natural gas responsibly.”

Pennsylvania has only 12 active injection wells for fracking waste because it does not have “primacy” over the wells, and so must obtain approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before issuing permits. By contrast, Ohio has primacy, and so has permitted many more injection wells. There are 234 now operating in Ohio plus “a few” applications pending, the Department of Natural Resources said.

Andy Chow, a spokesman for the department, said the state legislature is prevented by the U.S. Constitution from blocking interstate commerce, and therefore cannot restrict brine entering from other states. He said that since the start of the current program to allow produced water to be pumped into injection wells, “no water supplies have been impacted.”

But he said the state may investigate claims of water contamination from the oil and gas industry. “If any person believes their water well has been impacted by oil and gas activity, the [Division of Oil and Gas Resources’] environmental assessment team will conduct an investigation, which may include water well sampling,” he said.

Permits are required to drill a well for production or disposal, and the department has denied some applications, Chow said.

As a result of the availability of disposal wells in Ohio, trucks carrying fracking waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia are arriving in Ohio “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Bob Lane, an oil and gas operator who in May 2022 sued the owners of 11 injection wells near his production sites in two Ohio counties. He claimed the fluid pumped into injection wells has leaked into some of his wells and damaged his production.

Lane, president of Bethel Oil & Gas Co., based in Marietta, Ohio, said four of his 65 wells have been shut down by injection-well leakage while production has “significantly” declined in eight to 10 more.

“The more water they pump into the ground, the more they drive the natural resources under the ground away from our leases,” he said. “Even in some of my better wells, the production has gone bad  because more and more of the formations down there are getting flooded. We have a smaller area to draw oil and gas from so your production starts tailing off.”

Despite the alleged damage to his business, Lane said the real worry is whether contaminated water in the injection wells will get into aquifers supplying drinking water to the public. That might happen, he said, via some disused oil and gas wells, where the produced water is now coming to the surface, or through a fault along the Ohio River Valley, where some injection wells operate.

“If it can get to the surface, there’s a lot of old wells drilled around here, and if it gets in the old wells, it is going to get out into the water,” he said.

He predicted that produced water will eventually contaminate aquifers with high levels of radioactivity and other fracking constituents, at which point those sources would be permanently lost for drinking water. “We haven’t had any subsurface water contaminated yet but it’s going to be,” he said.

Lane’s suit was dismissed by a judge last year on the grounds that he had not done enough to show that his wells had been damaged by the injection wells, said Zachary Zatezalo, his lawyer. But Lane appealed the dismissal, and the case is now due to be reheard by a three-judge panel.

Another Ohio oil and gas operator, Bob Wilson, sued injection well owners with the same complaint at the same time and that suit, too, was dismissed but is now being appealed, Zatezalo said.

In January this year, the impact of injection wells on nearby oil and gas operations was highlighted by an order from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources suspending operations at two Noble County injection wells that leaked brine. Between 2010 and 2021, four oil and gas wells were impacted by brine coming to the surface, the order said. This year, brine was reported spraying from the production casing of another oil and gas well, according to the Jan. 9 order from Eric Vendel, chief of the department’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources.

Vendel suspended operations by Deeprock Disposal Solutions of Marietta, Ohio, at its Warren Drilling and Travis injection wells, saying their continued operation “represents an imminent danger to the health and safety of the public, and is likely to result in immediate substantial damage to the natural resources of the state.” 

The Department has also recognized high levels of radioactivity in brine from oil and gas production wells around the state. In a 2018 report, the DNR found that combined radium 226 and 228 in brine from 107 samples in 10 geological formations all sharply exceeded the state health standard for those isotopes in drinking water. They included three samples in Ohio’s part of the giant Marcellus formation, where the average radiological activity was 2,316 picocuries per liter, dramatically higher than the state and federal health limits of 5 picocuries per liter in drinking water. A picocurie is a commonly used measure of radiation in a liquid or gas. The EPA says the naturally occurring level of radium-266 in surface water is 0.1 to 0.5 picocuries per liter.

In October last year, the environmental law firm Earthjustice, representing local activist groups, asked the EPA to rule that Ohio’s permitting program allowing the use of injection wells does not prevent the practice endangering public water supplies, and fails to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

In Athens County, where both injection and production wells operate, local leaders passed a resolution that calls on the state to end the spreading of frack waste on roads but they remain powerless to stop it, said Lenny Eliason, a county commissioner.

“The issue we have is the permitting and the lack of local involvement in the decision,” he said. “You can get a permit a lot faster in Ohio than you can in the states surrounding us, such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. So we get a lot of out-of-state waste.”

The DNR’s findings on radiation levels and produced water leakage show the dedication of its staff but also the limitations of their power to curb the oil and gas industry, said Julie Weatherington-Rice, a geologist who volunteers for the nonprofit Ohio Brine Task Force.

“It doesn’t mean their heart isn’t in the right place; it just means they don’t have any power,” she said.

But she said the state is “insane” to allow highly radioactive fracking waste to be spread on roads and injected into the ground. “What idiot in their right mind would take something that hot and spread it around on the countryside?” she asked.

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Chow of the DNR said in response that the department enforces laws passed by the state legislature. The Division of Oil and Gas Resources “continues to regulate Ohio’s oil and gas operations,” he said. “Through this regulation, the division works tirelessly to protect public health, safety, and the environment.”

While regulators have established the radioactivity of the produced water being dumped in the state, it is not yet clear what happens to the waste once it’s released underground or on public roads. The answer to that is being left up to citizen scientists like the Ohio Brine Task Force, and its affiliate, the Buckeye Environmental Network, said Weatherington-Rice, who works for an environmental consulting company and has a Ph.D. in soil science.

“We are very worried about the interconnection, subsurface especially, in areas where there are pathways nobody knows are down there,” she said. “It isn’t like it just goes down in a hole and disappears. It goes somewhere, and the ‘somewhere’ is the $64,000 question.”

Volunteers like Weatherington-Rice are doing their own investigation into the contents and pathways of the fracking wastewater, in the absence of work that they say should have been done by state officials.

“We are clearly spreading things that are hotter than the federal and state law permits, so then the question is: how much dilution occurs when it is spread, and where does it go?” she said. “Does it go into surface water? Does it go into the dust, into the soil, into the groundwater? Tracking down where it goes is the next big study that people are looking at here. We know it’s there, we just have to find it.”

In the state legislature, a bill that would ban the spreading of frack waste on roads was introduced last year by state Rep. Mary Lightbody, a Democrat. The bill failed to get a vote before the end of the legislative session but is expected to be reintroduced in the current session, advocates said. Lightbody did not respond to a request for comment. 

Asked whether a new bill would have any chance of becoming law, Weatherington-Rice said that the state is “owned by oil and gas” and that its chances will depend on whether citizen scientists can find a smoking gun. “If we can prove that this stuff is getting loose into the environment, maybe,” she said.

The difficulty of finding evidence of water contamination from frack waste is compounded by the expense of private water testing, deterring many people from hiring a testing company, said Roxanne Groff, a member of Athens County’s Future Network, a nonprofit that fights the negative effects of fracking. 

“If somebody was told they needed to shell out $1,500 to hire a private tester, they’re not going to do it,” she said. “They are going to carry water or buy a water buffalo. That’s just the way people are here. I think the reason we are not hearing any peeps is that nobody can afford to go out and test their own stuff. We all know the harm is happening but without proper measuring there’s no way to know the degree of harm.”

And even if grassroots groups pooled their resources to pay for water testing to look for contamination from injection wells and road spreading, any such report is likely to be ignored by a legislature that traditionally accommodates the oil and gas industry, Groff said.

“It would call attention for a short period of time that there’s a problem, but you still have to convince the lawmakers that laws are needed,” she said. “You’re not going to convince the right-wing Republican party to do that; it’s just never, ever going to happen.”

Grassroots groups are also faced with the oil and gas industry’s exemptions from several federal statutes including the Safe Drinking Water Act, as a result of the so-called Halliburton loophole, which means the EPA does not regulate the industry under those laws. The loophole is named after the oil and gas company that was headed by former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney before he came to office.

Despite the long odds stacked against them, activists like Kettler say they will continue to seek evidence that fracking waste is contaminating public water and the environment.

“It’s all self-taught citizen science,” he said. “It’s in the beginning stages because nobody has done this before, and we are having to teach it to ourselves. It’s up to us to get the evidence about fracking waste.”

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