Addressing Activist Misinformation on ‘Fracking’ Wastewater Disposal
The Fresh Water Accountability Project announced this week that they have appealed to the U.S. EPA Region 5, urging the agency to revoke the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) Class II Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. While they have not published the actual request, their press release borders on comical and inflammatory, with an alarming lack of knowledge regarding the oil and gas industry and the agencies who oversee them.
This isn’t the first time FWAP has appealed to Region 5, either. In their press release, the group details a similar request on March 5th, which shows this group isn’t interested in regulation at all, but rather stopping the industry from operating anywhere.
“Please consider this to be the statutorily-required notice that the citizens of Ohio, a/k/a the victims of this sinister, politically compromised and profit-driven plot, are putting the USEPA on notice of potential toxic tort and substantial endangerment damages in which the federal government will share, owing to the agency’s conscious and indifferent approach to the damage to public health and the environment.” (emphasis added)
With this group’s true position on oil and gas development and generally unpleasant disposition in hand, let’s now take a closer look at some of their more egregious claims.
CLAIM: “These poorly regulated facilities would accept frack waste by the billions of gallons and hundreds of thousands of tons, not just from Ohio frack drilling, but from out of state…”
FACT: There is no such thing as “frack drilling,” and the fact that they use terms like this show their utter lack of knowledge regarding the industry they oppose. Hydraulic fracturing is used as a well stimulation process that takes place after the drilling rig is removed from the well. Brine or produced water will come from wells once they start producing. That water is not called “frack waste,” no matter how much one dislikes an industry. It is, however, a waste stream that needs to be recycled or disposed of carefully. This is why there are tens of thousands of Class II wells safely operating across the country, closely overseen by a combination of state and federal regulators.
In order for ODNR to gain primacy over its Class II UIC program, which the agency has managed for nearly 30 years, Ohio regulators had to make made its rules more stringent than those set by the federal government.
ODNR employs unannounced inspections every 11–12 weeks, as well as continuous mechanical integrity monitoring or monthly mini-tests to ensure proper well functionality. The U.S. EPA only requires one well inspection each year and a demonstration of mechanical integrity at least once every five years.
Nonetheless, the U.S. EPA routinely audits state programs that have received primacy, including Ohio’s program. In fact, the U.S. EPA is actually performing a routine audit this year.
CLAIM: “…the Kasich administration is taking the lead in the nation to receive massive amounts of frack waste for short-term industry profit and regulatory agency revenue at the long-term expense of millions of Ohioans.”
FACT: Ohio is definitely not leading the nation in brine disposal. According to the U.S. EPA, the agency to which they are writing, “The approximately 144,000 Class II wells in operation in the United States inject over 2 billion gallons of brine every day. Most oil and gas injection wells are in Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Kansas.”
For what it’s worth, Ohio Class II disposal wells accepted 14.2 million barrels of brine in 2012, which equals only eight percent of total brine injected in the United States, which again is hardly leading the nation. According to ODNR, since the agency’s regulatory program began in 1983, “no subsurface ground water contamination incidents have been caused by Class II disposal wells.”
CLAIM:“Without adequate rules and regulations to measure, track and properly dispose of fracking waste, Ohio could turn into a large superfund site in the future.”
FACT: Pursuant to Ohio Revised Code Section 1509.22 (D)(1)(c):
“The provision and maintenance of information through monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting. In addition, the rules shall require the owner of an injection well who has been issued a permit under division (D) of this section to quarterly submit electronically to the chief information concerning each shipment of brine or other waste substances received by the owner for injection into the well.”
Technically the activists are correct – if Ohio did not have rules, then there could be a problem. But the state clearly does have strong rules on the books, once again underscoring the activists’ fundamental misunderstanding of Ohio’s industry and the regulations that govern it.
CLAIM: “This facility, if allowed to go into operation, plans to take 600,000 tons of radioactive frack waste per year and dump it on the bare ground – no oversight – no traceability – no responsibility for future pollution of groundwater and air. How can such things happen without the community knowing of the risks?” (emphasis added)
FACT: One must assume this “radioactive frack waste” to which the activists are referring are drill cuttings that come to the surface when developing a well. Far from the apocalyptic insinuation in the activists’ letter, these cuttings are simply rock and dirt from the earth that contain low levels of naturally occurring radioactive material.
Erik Klemetti, a geology professor at Denison University, recently said, “I sympathize with the idea that we need to be very careful with this sort of material,” but he added: “It’s likely not adding any additional radioactive hazard to the surface, compared to the rocks around here that we have to begin with.”
Also, as Michael Snee with the Ohio Department of Health has noted, the state’s laws with respect to cuttings and radioactivity were recently updated: “Ohio addressed radiation in a law that took effect on Sept. 29  and redefines how shale waste should be handled and tested before it is sent to landfills.”
As you can see, the claims made by FWAP lack any merit, much less any evidence that would give pause to the EPA Region 5 office in regards to Ohio’s Class II UIC program. In addition, ODNR’s UIC program doesn’t even oversee the reuse of drill cuttings — “Off-site disposal or reuse of cuttings that are defined as solid waste is regulated by Ohio EPA’s Division of Materials and Waste Management” — but for some reason FWAP never bothered to look into that matter before writing its stunningly weak letter to the U.S. EPA.
From development to disposal, Ohio has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the United States. Unfortunately, some activist groups would rather make a press release than actually accept the fact that oil and gas development is being done in a safe and responsible manner in Ohio.