A fracking well head pokes out of a hole in the ground with large containers behind it
Credit: Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons

Appalachian Ohio is a primary dumping ground for natural gas fracking waste. Nearly half of it is coming from neighboring states. A battle is underway to try to strip the Ohio Department of Natural Resources from its hold on the permitting process for these injection wells.

A coalition of environmental activists and community groups in southeastern Ohio are calling on the U.S. EPA to take over oil and gas waste injection well permitting from the ODNR, pointing to the millions of barrels of fracking waste being injected into Ohio ground, and continual pollution incidents.

“Ohio’s Class II well program contains numerous technical deficiencies that have allowed for underregulated oil and gas waste disposal which has resulted in serious consequences to human health and the environment,” attorneys from EarthJustice, the Sierra Club of Ohio, and various community groups say in their petition to the EPA asking them to begin the rulemaking process to revoke Ohio’s primacy over its Class II program “due to the longstanding and systemic failures.”

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil-and-gas drilling that produces pressure fractures in rock formations that stimulate the flow of natural gas or oil. Due to big increases in natural gas production from fracking over the last 15 years, Ohio has become a hot spot for both the extraction of gas, and the injection of waste from the process back into the ground. Both are largely taking place in Ohio’s eastern and southeastern counties.

Class II wells inject waste fluids that are brought to the surface during the fracking process. In Ohio, the ODNR Department of Mineral Resources Management has been given sole regulatory authority of oil and gas drilling disposal under Ohio Revised Code.

As a result of the exponential increase in natural gas production, operators produce billions of tons of waste annually in the United States. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, gas production increased from 1.4 billion cubic feet per day in 2008 to nearly 24 billion cubic feet per day in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Ohio a hotbed for waste disposal

Since the fracking boom started in the Appalachian Basin, Ohio has been a standout for permitting waste injection wells.

For comparison, Ohio has 45 times the number of active Class II wells of New York, 15 times that of Pennsylvania, and 3.5 times that of West Virginia, the petition noted, pointing to figures from respective state sources. 

As of May 2020, Ohio had 226 active injection wells, 57 additional wells permitted, and eight wells being drilled, according to ODNR figures in the petition.

Ohio receives much of its waste from out of state, primarily Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Based on operators’ records, approximately 43‐48% of the waste disposed of in Ohio comes from out‐of‐state oil and gas production, a June 2021 report from Ted Auch at the FracTracker Alliance said.

“(The national) EPA should be particularly concerned with waste handling and disposal in the state of Ohio because the state is responsible for the majority of liquid oil and gas waste disposal in the region,” the petition says.

The petition claims that toxic and radioactive organic and inorganic compounds are found in fracking injection waste, though the exact mixtures of oil and gas brine used by companies for fracking is generally protected by the industry as trade secrets.

The petition also pointed to evidence from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility that per‐ and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in the hydraulic fracturing process in oil and gas wells in Ohio, and as a result oil and gas waste in Ohio could contain PFAS chemicals. These are known as “forever chemicals,” and are widely used, long lasting chemicals found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe.

“Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals,” the U.S. EPA says on its website.

The group is alleging that ODNR has failed to prevent underground injection that endangers drinking water sources and fails to comply with the requirements of the national Safe Drinking Water Act.

Surfacing waste

The petition points to a series of incidents over the past several years of waste migrating out of injection wells and surfacing. 

In 2019, oil and gas waste injected into the “Redbird #4” disposal well in Washington County surfaced through conventional oil and gas wells located five miles away from the injection site. The ODNR concluded in an investigation that injection well activity did allow waste to migrate between the formations and into the production wells, but said it was unlikely that waste would migrate farther as Redbird #4 injection of waste had stopped.

In a separate incident, in August of 2021, fluid identified as likely oil and gas waste spewed from an abandoned oil and gas well near the shore of Veto Lake in Washington County. ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management responded to contain the “small amount of oil and remediate any impacts to the area,” a spokesperson told the Columbus Dispatch at the time.

In January 2021, oil and gas waste surfaced through an idle production well owned by Genesis Resources in Noble County (the “Genesis Wells incident”). Containment measures were put in place to prevent the flow of fracking waste into a nearby tributary, an ODNR spokeswoman said at the time.

A review in the petition says contamination happened anyway.

“For four days, the idle production well spewed over 40,000 barrels of waste across the ground and into a nearby stream, killing approximately 500 fish and aquatic species,” a review by the research group Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy said.

“These incidents all could have seriously impacted Ohioans’ drinking water,” the petition said. “They are the consequences of a flawed regulatory program that every day endangers (underground sources of drinking water) and the environment.”

Alleged ODNR deficiencies

EarthJustice Senior Attorney James Yskamp alleged in a press call announcing the petition this past Thursday that ODNR has “consistently failed to enforce violations of its program” and that it lacks tools necessary to bring violators into compliance, such as unilateral penalty authority.

He alleged that technical deficiencies in the ODNR’s injection well program have “allowed for underregulated oil and gas waste disposal, and have resulted in serious consequences to human health and the environment.”

In addition to waste making its way to the surface miles from injection well sites and endangering underground sources of drinking water, Yskamp said Ohio had seen “an exponential increase in seismic activity in the state that has been linked to injection well activity.”

Yskamp said ODNR permitting fails to 1.) account for over-pressurization; 2.) locate migration pathways; and, 3.) to define the components of the waste being injected.

In January of this year, the ODNR formally adopted new rules for its Class II injection program around setback requirements and expanding the review radius for wells.

Nevertheless, the petition took issue with what it says are a lack of enforcement mechanisms and failure by the agency to practice enforcement, as well as alleged continued over-pressurization and failure to meet Safe Drinking Water Act technical standards.

ODNR spokeswoman Stephanie O’Grady said in a Wednesday morning email that the U.S. EPA delegated primacy of the regulation of Class II Disposal Wells to the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management in 1983.

“The federal agency has consistently reaffirmed that Ohio operates an effective regulatory program that meets federal standards and protects public health, safety, and the environment,” she said. “The Division takes our responsibility to protect Ohio’s groundwater, surface water, and environment seriously, as demonstrated by our rigorous permitting process, regular inspections, and enforcement.”

Local reactions

In the press call, retired Youngstown Fire Battalion Chief Silverio Caggiano, a HazMat specialist, pointed to documents obtained through a public records request, saying they show the U.S. EPA has found many chemicals used by Ohio’s oil and gas industry for fracking have health risks.

“They found that of 206 chemicals that they looked at, EPA had health concerns for about 109 of them, including irritation to eyes, mucus membranes, blood toxicity, developmental toxicity, kidney effects, liver toxicity, neurotoxicity, and mutinization from the radiation,” he said.

Caggiano especially highlighted dangers from radium and the development of cancers, specifically bone cancers in developing children.

“They (state regulators) have no idea how much of these chemicals are actually being put in,” he said, pointing to industry confidentiality claims around fracking waste solutions. He called the ODNR’s recent attempts to revamp regulations “a joke.”

Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason was also on the call, and counted a win in local officials now being able to call upon the ODNR to hold public hearings for injection wells that were previously at the agency’s discretion.

“The problem with the hearing is that even though the public provides input on safety issues and concerns with injections, the ODNR director has no discretion. As long as the permit is correctly filled out, the permit gets granted,” he said. “Why involve the public in a sham process when you’re not going to do anything about acting on the information that’s provided during that public hearing?”

The other question Eliason said he had is why it’s so much easier to get an injection well permit in Ohio as compared to other states regulated by the national EPA.

“The third thing you deal with, with ODNR, is that enforcement is slow or non-existent,” he said. “We’ve had some open wells for a number of years that were supposed to be closed down and covered up, and they never got covered up because ODNR lacked inspectors.”

Ohio has capped severance taxes, so ODNR is stretched thin and doesn’t have the funding to hire more inspectors, he said. Removing a 500,000 barrel cap on taxes collected would help fund the ODNR to do proper inspection and enforcement, he added.

Eliason further pointed to high trucking traffic from the injection, and wear and tear on township roads that strain county budgets.

Washington County resident George Banziger said his home county is first in the state for injection waste being put into its ground, with 8 million barrels injected just in 2019.

“People in Washington County are frustrated, disappointed, and angry,” he said, and criticized ODNR as ignoring residents’ concerns while granting new well permits. Banziger also noted the irony of the destruction of oil and gas production wells due to excessive fracking waste injection.

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