Appalachian Basin

Contradictory Data Discredits Study Claiming Ohio Injection Wells Deliberately Being Placed in Poor Communities

A new taxpayer-funded Yale University study claims Ohio wastewater injection wells are “disproportionately located in low income communities,” implying Utica Shale operators are targeting the poor, and exposing them to “potential” health harms. From the study’s press release:

“Our findings suggest a pattern of environmental inequity and are consistent with findings from a Texas study reporting a greater proportion of disposal wells in high poverty block groups,” said Assistant Professor Nicole Deziel, Ph.D., the paper’s senior author. “Further research is needed to determine whether residents in census blocks with injection wells face increased risk of chemical exposures or adverse health outcomes.”

But notably, the study’s data actually show median household incomes and home values in the regions with injection wells are higher than those that don’t have injection wells at all – completely contradicting the report’s topline conclusion. From the study:

“Both median income and median household value were higher in block groups with CII injection wells ($49,097 vs. $46,250 and $118,750 vs. $109,800, respectively), although these differences were not statistically significant.”

As the following chart from the study clearly shows, the 156 “block groups” that are home to Ohio’s 257 Class II injection wells have higher median incomes and household values than areas with no injection wells.

Despite this common-sense evidence that expose this report’s findings as questionable at best, the researchers explain their conclusions are based on a “multivariable regression analysis” in which they claimed to find association between lower income groups and proximity to injection wells. However, they also openly admit the association was not statistically significant in one of the three models used:

“In multivariable regression analyses, the odds of a block group containing a CII injection well decreased 13–17% for each $10,000 increase in median income across the models (e.g., OR=0.837, 95% CI: 0.719, 0.961 for Sparse SGLMM), although this association did not reach statistical significance in SGLMM.”

The simple fact of the matter is the location of Class II injection wells is typically in close proximity to where production is taking place. This trend is dictated not by some sinister motivation to target poor people — as this report strongly insinuates — but by the fact that a vast majority of waste disposed of in these wells is produced water from day-to-day production, making close proximity to Class II injection wells a cost-effective priority for producers. Not surprisingly, the report notes:

“CII injection wells are sited overwhelmingly over the eastern half of Ohio overlying the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations, indicating that wastewater is still disposed of relatively close to the location of drilling into the shale.”

As the following map from the report shows, most Ohio injection wells are located in the eastern part of the state — prominently rural areas where oil and gas development and production is taking place.

So, let’s review: the report finds those who live in regions near injection wells actually have higher median incomes and household values (which can be traced to shale development, by the way). And a vast majority of injection wells are located near active oil and gas production sites. What exactly is the point of this study?

Even assuming there is a small shred of truth to this report’s topline conclusion, the researchers admit they fail to prove causation on any level. There is no evidence in this report demonstrating proximity to injection wells is having an adverse effect on financial or physical well-being, period. From the report:

“It is important to note that, although we estimated significant associations between sociodemographic and other factors and CII injection well presence in this ecologic analysis, we cannot claim causation or a temporal relationship from our results.

“… Populations with lower income may be at increased vulnerability to potential exposures and risks posed by CII waste sites due to limited financial resources to support medical care, legal questions, exposure mitigation strategies, and relocation expenses.”

Though it is true that risks “may” present themselves (nothing in life is risk free, after all), it is essential to note that there are no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination attributable to Class II disposal wells in Ohio, and such wells are subject to state regulations that are far more stringent than federal guidelines.

Lead Researcher Working Backwards from a Conclusion?

Given the questionable conclusions of this study, some background on the lead researcher is in order.

Based on Deziel’s past comments and affiliations, it stands to reason that she is working backwards from a predetermined conclusion that fracking presents a threat to public health. The following promotional flyer for a 2017 academic symposium on the “health impacts of the fracking industry” featuring Deziel pretty much speaks for itself.

And then there is the following quote from a press release announcing Deziel and her Yale colleagues’ extensive Appalachian Basin research, which is being funded by a $2 million Environmental Protection Agency grant.

“This research brings together physical scientists, engineers and population scientists from across the Yale campus to evaluate the likelihood of drinking-water contamination and adverse birth outcomes resulting from these new industrial activities,” said Dr. Deziel. “Research from these disciplines has generally been occurring separately, and integration of hydrogeology, chemistry and epidemiology will provide critical scientific evidence for policymakers, health officials and other researchers.”

Deziel was also recently featured in a Q&A headlined “Fracking’s Fallout,” so she is obviously not subtle about publicizing her anti-fracking leanings.

And this isn’t the first time she’s manipulated data in an attempt to tie oil and gas development to outrageous conclusions. Deziel was the lead author of a recent study that claimed sexually transmitted disease (STI) rates in Ohio’s shale counties are above non-shale counties — even though state health data show chlamydia and gonorrhea rates are significantly lower in Ohio shale counties than both the state and national average.

This latest study reaches a similarly flimsy conclusion that is unlikely to fool anyone outside of the anti-fracking echo-chamber. But unfortunately, with $2 million in taxpayer funds to play with, this won’t be the last report Ohians see from Deziel and company.

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