Report: Too Few Safeguards for Drinking Water Near Fracking Wells

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Fracking, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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Photo credit: Brennan Linsley/AP Photos

Article courtesy of Laura Arenschield | August 12, 2014 | The Columbus Dispatch | Shared as educational material

Federal and state governments do not do enough to safeguard drinking water around the nearly 200,000 wells where fracking wastewater is injected deep underground, according to a federal report.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that existing regulations do not adequately protect against contamination that could occur after earthquakes, which is increasingly a concern at injection wells and fracking sites in Ohio and the West.

In some states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees injection wells. In others, state agencies such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources regulate oil and gas drilling.

Julia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. EPA, said the agency is reviewing the report but generally agrees with its findings.

Bob Worstall, an ODNR oil and gas resources management deputy chief, said that after earthquakes connected with an injection well rolled through Mahoning County in 2011, the state agency started requiring seismic monitoring near injection wells.

Additional earthquakes occurred this year in northeastern Ohio near fracking sites.

“Our experience has been — and I think the results will bear it out — that if the well is constructed properly, the likelihood of any issues down the road are greatly diminished,” Worstall said.

Ohio has about 30 seismic-monitoring stations near injection wells.

In all, Ohio has nearly 2,500 injection wells; Pennsylvania has about 1,900. Not all of those are active, and fracking-wastewater injection wells represent an even smaller portion. Ohio has about 200 fracking-wastewater injection wells. Pennsylvania has 10.

To pull oil and natural gas from shale, companies drill vertically and then turn sideways into the rock. Then they blast millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shafts to free trapped oil and gas in the process called fracking. During the process, fluids bubble back up to the surface with the gas.

Worstall said it is easier to get an injection-well permit in Ohio than in Pennsylvania because the state issues permits here. In Pennsylvania, the U.S. EPA issues permits.

Natural Resources, he said, typically approves an injection-well permit within a month and a half. The federal EPA permit process takes about six months.

As fracking increases in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states, the amount of wastewater increases.

Fracking chemicals include ethylene glycol, which can damage kidneys; formaldehyde, a known cancer risk; and naphthalene, considered a possible carcinogen. The waste that bubbles up also includes radioactive material.

According to the GAO report, at least 2 billion gallons of wastewater are injected every day into wells throughout the country.

California officials shut down 11 injection wells there last month and are reviewing an additional 100 because of fears that companies had been injecting the wastewater into drinking-water aquifers.

Mark Bruce, an ODNR spokesman, said injection wells are an improvement over past practices.

“Before 1983, the way oil and gas waste was disposed of was you dug a pit and you left it in the pit,” he said. “So (underground injection wells were) developed to eliminate that.”

Seismic testing is not required at every injection well in Ohio, said Teresa Mills, Ohio organizer with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

And the state doesn’t require testing of surrounding drinking-water wells in rural areas, where injection wells typically are built.

“My steadfast belief is once they put (wastewater) down a hole, it’s going to come out somewhere — either in my community or if it makes its way into a river via underground passages,” Mills said. “If they can’t find a better way to treat it, then they should not be allowed to produce it.”

Worstall said injection wells are the best option for fracking wastewater right now.

“You don’t want it at the surface, you don’t want it dumped in a river,” he said. “Some of these, it’s 7,000 or 8,000 feet below ground level, in a reservoir that’s isolated. It’s gone.”

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