Napalm Creek

Youngstown earthquakes raise issues on

oilfield wastes from shale exploration

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012, 9:01 PM     Updated: Monday, January 16, 2012, 6:43 AM
Aaron Marshall, The Plain Dealer By Aaron Marshall, The Plain Dealer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A New Year's Eve earthquake that shook homes in Youngstown has set off political tremors across Ohio as officials scramble to reassure the public that an expected flurry of drilling in the state won't jeopardize their safety.

Columbia University seismic experts have said the injection of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oilfield waste fluids into a fault line probably caused the quake, one of a series of tremors that have rocked the Mahoning Valley.

That finding has cracked open a wider debate that goes beyond the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to its aftermath: the millions of barrels of waste fluids that are disposed of in wells thousands of feet below the ground. Last year, deep injection wells stored 11 million barrels of the fluids in Ohio.

The 11 Youngstown earthquakes since March have shined a spotlight on the 177 deep well injection sites in Ohio, which records show are now accepting more oilfield fluid waste than ever -- nearly 37,000 barrels a day. They are known as Class II injection wells, and the waste they accept is normally a brine-water mix that contains chemicals used in the oil and gas production process, some toxic.

As shale exploration for oil and natural gas deposits takes off in a big way in Ohio, the disposal wells are needed more than ever. And they have also become a prime dumping ground for waste from surrounding states -- particularly Pennsylvania. State records show a 60 percent increase in out-of-state waste from the first quarter of 2011 to the third quarter of 2011.

Out-of-state oilfield fluid waste accounts for nearly 2 million barrels a quarter, which was roughly 57 percent of the total waste dumped into the ground during the third quarter of 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The recent quakes have set off critics from the political left as well as environmentalists who wonder if regulations need to be tightened, including more local control over where injection wells can be located as well as seismic testing and better tracking of chemicals injected underground.

State officials admit that a closer eye should have been kept on the Youngstown seismic activity and acknowledge that stronger regulations are forthcoming, including limits on drilling depth and seismic testing in some cases. But they stress that Ohio's regulatory process is safe and well-run and that the wells are the best way to dispose of the oilfield waste.

Quake shakes up Youngstown

State Rep. Bob Hagan of Youngstown was trying out a new iron on New Year's Eve. As the Democratic lawmaker pressed his son's pants, his wife and daughter were in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Then the earth moved.

"The roar of the scraping was unlike anything I've heard, and I'm a train engineer," said Hagan, who lives about a mile from the Northstar No. 1 deep injection well owned by D&L Energy."The feel of it and the sound of it was so scary, I thought my kid had fallen down the steps carrying something."

It was the first earthquake that Youngstown residents had felt but the 11th quake overall to strike the Youngstown area since March centered near the injection well, which reaches more than 9,000 feet into the earth on the city's west side. After the quake, the state got company officials to shut down four wells in the area and issued a temporary moratorium on deep well injections in a five-mile zone around the well head.

ODNR officials say the company was in full compliance with its permit, which was one of 19 across Ohio revised to allow injection pressure beyond the normal limits. They say the company -- which pushed 174,000 barrels of oilfield waste, almost all from out of state, down the injection well in the fall of 2011-- did not appear to be putting more fluid down the well than was allowed.

Instead, ODNR officials say, the earthquake probably resulted after the well funneled fluid into a previously unknown fault line that sat in Ohio's geologic basement -- a layer of granite.

"It was too deep," Gov. John Kasich said during an interview Wednesday with Plain Dealer editors and reporters. "We are now not going to allow wells to be drilled that deeply -- they are going to be limited to 8,000 feet. We don't want to go that deep. We don't know where the fault lines are in this state."

ODNR records show that only 12 of the 177 deep injection wells in Ohio dip below 8,000 feet, with the deepest in Belmont County at 13,727 feet.

Kasich said that expensive seismic testing will probably be required for companies wanting to locate new Class II wells in areas without track records of trouble-free injection. Currently, Ohio law doesn't require any seismic testing before wells are sited and approved.

"If you are going to wildcat, you are probably going to have to go do the seismic testing," Kasich said. "But if you are going to locate in an area that we already know, we don't think it's necessary."

Kasich said he tells energy company executives that they will be welcomed with open arms in Ohio but that protecting the environment is just as important as the jobs that shale development might bring.

"I tell them if you come to Ohio and you screw up -- you're not going to want to screw up," he said. "When I say screw up, I mean damage the environment or any of this other nonsense -- shortcuts or any of this other stuff."

Demand for wells grows

While the Youngstown quake looks to be the first one in Ohio triggered by an injection well placed on a fault line, earthquakes have been linked to injection wells in recent years in Texas and Arkansas.

In north central Arkansas in 2010, a "swarm" of hundreds of small earthquakes began to occur across an area with four injection wells. Arkansas regulators reacted to the quakes by establishing a 1,200-square-mile area where the wells are now banned.

Scott Ausbrooks, an official with the Arkansas Geological Survey, said the January 2011 ban caused the Arkansas earthquakes to taper off in intensity and frequency. "Just because you flip the switch off doesn't mean it'll stop," he said. "It'll just decrease the frequency."

Ohio began getting more out-of-state oilfield waste after Pennsylvania decided last April to stop allowing the fluids to be processed in wastewater treatment plants.

Pennsylvania has only a handful of injection wells because of geological reasons as well as the fact that the federal government still controls the permit process. In Ohio, state officials took control of the program in the mid-1980s and like to brag about the Buckeye State's more streamlined process.

That brought a tidal wave of out-of-state oilfield waste washing into Ohio and a 30 percent jump in the amount of waste being injected into the ground in Ohio from 2010 to 2011.

Kasich laments the fact that Ohio is becoming a dumping ground for fluids but says he can't stop it.

"I hate it," Kasich said. "Unfortunately, we have this thing called the Interstate Commerce Clause. We went through this on trash, and now we are going through this issue."

Ohio charges out-of-state operators 20 cents a barrel for injection compared with 5 cents a barrel for in-state companies. Those fees generated about $1 million to help run the state's program last year.

The Ohio oil and gas industry is also alarmed by the jump in the amount of out-of-state fluid being trucked into Ohio, as it has resulted in rising costs for oil and gas producers while stretching Ohio's injection well capacity, said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

"We have very valid concerns that the capacity to get into that system will be taken up by out-of-district" barrels, Stewart said. "Costs are also escalating as demand picks up."

ODNR permitted 29 Class II injection wells in 2011, and more are likely on the way as demand continues to increase in Ohio. "I think the marketplace rules, and people are looking at Class II injection wells as a business opportunity," said Stewart.

A pair of the injection wells approved by ODNR in 2011 are slated for Mansfield, where a Texas-based company plans to bring in up to 82 tanker cars a week full of oilfield waste by railroad.

Mansfield city officials are banding together with other officials from across Richland County to raise a war chest to fight the wells.

"We don't want to see toxic waste dumped into our land in Richland County," said John Spon, Mansfield law director. "We see no economic benefit. We don't want to be known as a county that is a repository of waste."

So why don't Mansfield officials find a way to block the injection site? They don't have any control over regulating or locating injection wells under a 2004 state law that left the sole control over injection well regulations in the hands of the ODNR.

Spon said he has questions about whether the law effectively handcuffing local officials is constitutional. He said state law doesn't adequately protect safety as it doesn't require seismic testing at well sites nor allow for detailed disclosure of what's being injected.

While Ohio law does require those injecting oilfield fluids into the ground to keep records of what they dump, ODNR officials acknowledge that the paper trail from oilfield to hauler to well site makes it almost impossible to track.

Asked by The Plain Dealer for a breakdown of what chemicals were injected into the Youngstown well, ODNR officials said it would be impossible.

"There are too many individual records that would have to be searched backwards," said Rick Simmers, head of the ODNR's Oil and Gas Division.

However, Simmers said change could be on the horizon as the department is considering electronically tracking the oilfield fluids as they go into the injection wells.

Residents fear the unknown

At a public meeting in Youngstown packed by hundreds of Mahoning Valley residents Wednesday night, audience members repeatedly brought up fears about the unknown fluids being injected into the ground.

"Your saltwater is radioactive poison," shouted one woman after state and industry officials repeatedly described the waste as brine water.

Hagan, who has called for a moratorium on all deep injection wells across the state, drew the biggest applause from the crowd. "We're dealing with earthquakes and we're dealing with a dangerous chemical solution that seems to have found a home in Ohio," he said. "And I think they found a bigger home for it on the west side of Youngstown, and I think that's unacceptable."

Environmentalists also stress that a greater ability to track the chemicals is crucial as toxic fracking fluids become more prevalent.

"Local communities have no idea what chemicals are going into what injection sites," said Cheryl Johncox, executive director of the Buckeye Forest Council. "We have very serious concerns that levels of chemicals are not being monitored." 

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