This story originally appeared in the Athens County Independent. It is reprinted with permission.
TORCH, Ohio — Four fracking waste injection wells in Athens County have temporarily suspended operations by order of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which says the wells present an “imminent danger” to health and the environment.
On May 1, ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management ordered the suspension of a Class II injection well in Rome Township on grounds that its operator, Reliable Enterprises LLC, violated an Ohio Administrative Code section that bars operators from contaminating or polluting surface land and surface or subsurface water. In late June, three wells in Torch operated by K&H Partners were suspended on the same grounds.
Applications for new Class II injection wells from both Reliable Enterprises and K&H were denied because of the suspensions. K&H’s application for a fourth well at its $43 million facility in Torch generated controversy when it was proposed in 2018.
Class II wells are used to contain toxic waste from oil and gas production thousands of feet underground. The wells are intended to isolate the waste water, known as brine, from groundwater.
However, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties.
Waste injected into the Rome Township well spread to oil and gas production wells as far as two miles away, also in both Athens and Washington counties, the division said.
That suggests that all four wells “endanger and are likely to endanger public health, safety, or the environment,” the ODNR orders said. If the wells continue to operate, the ODNR orders say “additional impacts may occur in the future and are likely to contaminate the land, surface waters, or subsurface waters.”
The suspension orders for both K&H and Reliable Enterprises say the wells cannot resume operation until “the conditions that caused the suspension have been corrected.”
K&H fought its order in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, but the court found that it did not have jurisdiction in the case — the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission did. The commission was already considering the company’s appeal, which remains pending.
Reliable Enterprises did not appeal its suspension order, according to the commission’s docket, which the Independent obtained through a records request.
Two Class II wells in Noble County were also suspended earlier this year over threats to local water supplies. The order suspending those wells reported issues with brine flowing to the surface since 2010 and referenced multiple instances of uncontrolled brine release that required corrective action from the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.
A 2021 incident cost the division $1.2 million to repair. In January of this year, another uncontrolled brine release occurred at one of the wells. The suspension order for the Noble County wells came days later.
Threats to Water
Although the composition of fracking fluid is generally considered a “trade secret,” monitoring suggests the waste is highly hazardous.
Data released by the Pennsylvania-based watchdog group FracTracker shows that at least two of the three K&H wells in question have been injected with waste containing polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAs are linked to birth defects and increased risk of cancer.
ODNR data published by FracTracker shows fracking waste in Ohio contains radioactive waste as well. The radioactive compounds that ODNR found in fracking waste can remain in the environment for thousands of years and cause bone, liver and breast cancer.
Mark Bruce, then an administrative officer with the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, told the Independent in August that “ODNR has received no evidence or reports that any groundwater, surface water, or water wells have been impacted” by fracking waste that migrated from the K&H wells in Torch. Bruce has since left his position.
The absence of evidence showing impacts on drinking water doesn’t necessarily mean that no impact has occurred, said Ted Auch, midwest program director for FracTracker. Auch is particularly concerned for Athens County residents who rely on well water, who may have limited ability to monitor possible contamination.
Likewise, Julie Weatherington-Rice, a hydrogeologist and Columbus-based senior scientist at Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants, said the brine migration incident “certainly” threatens water supplies.
“Yes, we can lose public water supplies; yes, we can lose private water supplies,” Weatherington-Rice said. She added that it is difficult to know how far the impact could extend in any specific incident of brine migration.
Bruce said residents can report suspected impacts to the ODNR by calling (614) 265-6922, adding that the department will investigate reports.
In addition to disposal through injection, fracking waste in Ohio is also used to salt roadways despite its radioactivity. Advocates, including the Ohio Brine Task Force, say this poses a grave environmental threat.
A Risky Place for Underground Injection
“All injection wells have the potential to leak,” said Weatherington-Rice. “What was down there already has to move … so it’s gonna go in all the fissures and the joints and the cracks … and you’re overloading the system. Eventually the glass is gonna overflow.”
This is particularly problematic since geologists do not know the locations of many fault lines or of many abandoned wells and mines through which injected brine can reach surface and groundwater sources, she explained. Many faults are discovered only through seismic events induced by fracking and wastewater injection. One such event occurred recently in Washington County.
Production well operators near Torch have alleged their operations were affected by migrating fracking waste for years, according to the ODNR order.
In a 2016 investigation, the ODNR determined that it was unlikely the K&H wells were affecting the production wells. But in its June order, the department stated that more recent developments “undermine that 2016 investigation and demonstrate that its conclusion is wrong.”
In finding that fracking waste was migrating from the K&H wells, ODNR noted that K&H was injecting “large volumes of fluid” into the wells “at pressures that have increased.”
In 2019, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found evidence that brine water was migrating from injection wells in Washington County, affecting 28 nearby production wells.
ODNR believes fluid is migrating from the K&H wells in the same manner as in Washington County. Before its Washington County investigation, “the Division did not contemplate that injected fluid could migrate in the manner described in that report,” according to the June suspension order.
That claim doesn’t float with Weatherington-Rice.
“I just find that statement borderline ludicrous,” she said. “Anybody who has an undergraduate degree in geology, who went to a good school and did field work … would know better than that.”
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Weatherington-Rice added, “Ohio does not have magic geology” that would accept injection of large amounts of waste fluid without posing any risk.
The Ohio shale formation into which the K&H wells and the Reliable Enterprises well inject is a particularly risky geology for underground injection, according to Weatherington-Rice.
In its order denying Reliable Enterprises’s application for a second well, the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management pointed to issues with migrating fluid at its well in Rome Township. The order said, “an Ohio shale injection zone poses a substantial risk” for migration.
Likewise, in its order denying K&H’s application for a fourth well, the division cited “demonstrated problems with injecting into similar injection zones,” referring to waste injection into the Ohio shale near suspended wells.
The Buckeye Environmental Network and Ohio Brine Task Force, two Ohio environmental advocacy groups, have called for a suspension of all Class II wells injecting into the Ohio shale for over a decade, according to a Sept. 5 press release.
The release quoted Weatherington-Rice’s description of the Ohio shale as “holier than a Swiss cheese.”
K&H Fights Back
K&H Partners won a temporary restraining order from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in early June, after Judge Mark Serrott found that ODNR had deprived the company of its property rights. The company also appealed the decision to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission; that case is pending.
In seeking the temporary restraining order, K&H argued that the company, owned by the huge investment fund Blackstone, would face “catastrophic and irreparable harm from an indefinite suspension of its injection well facility,” citing a threat to K&H’s $1.2 million annual payroll.
K&H paid a $500,000 bond for a 15-day extension of the initial restraining order that allowed it to continue operation.
The primary basis of K&H’s case — both in Franklin County and before the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission — is a June 2020 report from an independent consulting firm. K&H hired the firm the month before to investigate complaints that its injected wastewater was migrating to production wells owned by Energex Power.
According to an appeal document, the firm reported no evidence “suggesting the K&H Partners [wells] are responsible for impacts to the surrounding oil and gas production wells.” The report said the brine appearing in production wells could be naturally occurring.
In its motion to dismiss the temporary restraining order, ODNR said the consultants’ report “does not undermine” findings of the agency’s multiyear investigation of the K&H wells, which found that the brine found in nearby production wells “cannot be plausibly explained as naturally originating.”
Although the ODNR has not yet seen evidence of water supplies contaminated by the K&H wells, the ODNR said in its motion to dismiss that the wells should be suspended to prevent such contamination from occurring: “Once an underground aquifer has been contaminated by brine, there is no way to make it safe again,” the motion states. “The damage is done, and it cannot be undone.
“Accordingly, when an injection well is showing signs of migration, the Chief cannot and does not wait for evidence that the migration has actually impacted an aquifer before issuing an order suspending operation. If he did so, it would be too late.”
The Franklin County case was dismissed and the restraining order vacated on Aug. 2 after Serrott determined that his court lacked jurisdiction to oversee the case. That right falls to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, which is already considering K&H’s appeal.
The commission will hold a private, quasi-judicial appeal to discuss the merits of the K&H appeal on Sept. 11, said Cory Haydocy, the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission’s executive director. It is unclear how long it will take to resolve the appeal, Haydocy added.
K&H attorney Jonathan Olivito did not return a request for comment.
“We said it would happen”
K&H operates facilities across 3,600 acres in Athens and Washington counties, according to the company’s court filings. The company received permits for its three Torch wells in 2012, 2014 and 2015 amid fierce public opposition.
For local activists who participated in the initial fight against the wells, the recent ODNR suspension and denial orders only confirm what activists have said about injection wells all along.
“We said it would happen, and it did!” activist and former Athens County Commissioner Roxanne Groff said in the press release from the Buckeye Environmental Network and Ohio Brine Task Force. “From the first Class II Injection Well permit application in Athens County in 2011, scores of us protested the idea and stated clearly that drilling in this area would eventually cause the migration of fluids. ODNR’s self-proclaimed strict policies failed.”
Bruce, with the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, told the Independent that despite recent migration of fracking waste, underground injection is “an effective and safe way to dispose of oilfield waste fluids.” Ohio’s regulatory framework ensures the wells “do not negatively impact public health, safety, or the environment and reduce risk as much as possible,” Bruce said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 2 billion gallons of fracking fluid are disposed of in about 180,000 Class II injection wells every day.