On a freezing winter day in January 2021, an angry torrent of liquid waste burst out of the bowels of the earth through an old oil and gas well in Noble County, Ohio. A video of the incident documents the unrelenting roar of the terrestrial bile contaminating the surrounding land.
The agency responsible for the regulating the oil and gas industry in the state, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), referred to the liquid as “produced brine,” which the EPA defines as “the fluid brought up from the hydrocarbon-bearing strata during the extraction of oil and gas, and includes, where present, formation water, injection water, and any chemicals added downhole or during the oil/water separation process.”
The well continued to leak for at least a week afterwards, killing off fish in a nearby tributary, and expelling about 30,000 barrels of the zombie waste, which was already disposed of once and now had to be hauled away again. The suspected source of the eruption was two injection wells, a common method of disposing oil and gas waste by injecting it deep underground.
More problems with injection wells were highlighted the following year when even some oil and gas companies in Ohio sounded the alarm on this disposal method. In the spring of 2022, two Ohio oil and gas companies sued the owners of injection wells, alleging that the waste injected underground migrated and leaked into their production wells.
These are just two recent examples of the issues facing Ohioans because of the rapid expansion of oil and gas extraction in the Appalachia region and the often-overlooked hazard that accompanies it: a deluge of toxic and radioactive waste.
Billions of Barrels
The EPA estimates that for every 1 barrel of oil produced by extraction 10 barrels of waste water are also produced. Although not always the most reliable source for accurate data on oil & gas harms, the American Petroleum Institute reveals an incredibly striking total of more than 18 billion barrels of oil and gas waste produced every year. This waste needs to go somewhere and one of the most common methods in the US for disposal is in underground injection wells.
The EPA runs the Underground Injection Control Program under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Sometimes, as is the case in Ohio, the EPA delegates its oversight authority to individual states. Of the 6 different classes of wells in this program, Class I wells are used for the disposal of hazardous and nonhazardous industrial waste and require stringent guidelines and monitoring to prevent leaks and other potentially dangerous issues from arising. It would make sense that oil & gas wastewater be handled this way. But that isn’t the case. Despite being a form of industrial waste, produced wastewater is disposed of in the less tightly regulated Class II well, especially reserved for the oil and gas industry.
There’s Something in the Water
The oil and gas industry and the regulatory bodies tasked with overseeing them have known for decades that this industry’s waste can be hazardous to human health and the environment just like other industrial wastes. The wastewater produced from extracting oil and gas contain varying amounts of salts, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, carcinogens and naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM).
Notwithstanding the EPA’s own finding that the waste contains “a wide variety of hazardous constituents,” the agency, in 1988, after facing heavy pressure from industry, exempted oil and gas waste from being classified as “hazardous.” Essentially, this means hazardous waste is being transported, treated and disposed of as if it is not hazardous. But it is. This is the reason the oil and gas waste does not need to be disposed of in the more tightly regulated Class I wells.
The volume of waste produced in Ohio and nearby states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia grew dramatically in the mid-2000’s. In 2011, Ohio disposed of 12.6 millions barrels of waste in injection wells. By 2014, just three years later, the number rose to 22 million barrels of waste injected beneath the earth, an increase of 75%. The states producing this waste scrambled to create the capacity for its disposal. Ohio saw a proliferation of Class II waste disposal wells, currently around 254 with applications for more pending. Pennsylvania, by contrast, has a mere 18.
Due to its primary permitting authority and lax regulations , Ohio has become a prime dumping ground for other states in the region looking to unload the radioactive and toxic nuisance somewhere else. A 2014 report by the US Government Accountability Office on the risks of groundwater contamination and earthquakes posed by underground injections wells, signaled out Ohio for not requiring operators disposing waste to reveal its chemical content. In 2017, “Ohio dumped 36.26 millions barrels…roughly half of that was shipped from Pennsylvania and West Virgina.”
More to Come
About a quarter of the population of Ohio already lives within a mile of oil and gas development.
Studies repeatedly show a correlation between living in close proximity to these operations and adverse health outcomes.. This concerning fact, though, did not deter the state legislature from attempting to increase that number. As the state continues to face issues handling its current load of waste, the legislature recently passed a bill that paves the way for even more fracking and, as a result, even more waste. HB 507, a bill that also classifies natural gas as a “green energy,” requires ODNR to consider applications to lease state-owned land for oil and gas drilling. Shortly after Ohio’s governor signed the bill into a law, a number of proposals to frack under beloved Salt Fork Park were submitted.
Ohioans Fighting Back
In response to this disastrous proposal, a grassroots group of Ohio citizens sprang up to form the organization “Save Ohio Parks.” The organization is doing inspiring work to let the public know its state parks are now under threat. The group’s website outlines a number of actions you can take now to help prevent further environmental damage to a state that contains so much natural beauty worth preserving.
As of now, there is no perfectly safe way of disposing the toxic and radioactive waste from oil and gas production. The best solution to the problem is to simply stop producing the waste. But, until that day comes, the US and states like Ohio should strive to minimize the risks associated with waste disposal to the greatest extent feasible. This includes preventing the further expansion of fracking operations onto state-owned land and properly classifying oil and gas waste as hazardous, so it will finally be tracked and monitored with the care and attention it warrants based on the risks it poses human health and the environment.