Ohio’s brine waste dumping zone


Click for larger image. Graphic by Allison Struck.

Simon Husted

Portage County may soon be home to more dumping zones of toxic brine than anywhere else in the state — with waste seeping from the hydraulic fracturing boom that has swept across eastern Ohio and other parts of the country during the past few years.

Hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — is a way to extract natural gas and oil from the ground by pumping chemically laced water and sand into deep layers of the earth’s shale. Almost all of the harmful chemicals flow back to the surface, and then workers dump them into underground pipes called injection wells.

The wells are necessary to dispose of the toxic brine caused by fracking, but, like fracking wells, injection wells create risk for contaminating soil and water, said Gwen Fischer, a founding member of the anti-fracking group Concerned Citizens of Portage County.

“Does it mean we are perfectly safe because they’ve injected (the toxic brine) underground?” Fischer said. “I don’t see any guarantees.”

Ohio has 178 active injection well sites. Portage and Stark County lead the state with 16 each, but Portage is expected to jump ahead after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources finishes its review of 33 injection well permits by the end of this year — nine of which are in Portage County.

Rarely are permits not approved, said ODNR spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans, because energy and waste disposal companies commonly ask ODNR to conduct area site reviews before the applications are even filed. Still, ODNR has strict site guidelines; the department adopted new regulations in August to prevent toxic brine from leaking into drinking water or vegetation. Parts of the new rules require that all new injection well operators must install devices that monitor the pressure inside the well and equip it with an automatic shut-off system.

“In many areas, Ohio is much more stringent than the federal guidelines,” Hetzel-Evans said.

But Fischer, a former Hiram College professor who lives in Hiram Township, said there isn’t any way to regulate injection wells to avoid environmental impact.

“No matter what regulations you have, you are going to have to transport this stuff,” Fischer said. “You’re either going to have pipelines that are shown to leak, or you are going to have trucks. And trucks use diesel fluid and that causes air pollution.”

ODNR also requires that injection well operators open a 15-day period for public comments or forum before the well application can be reviewed. Hetzel-Evans said the state listens to all comments, but it can only consider objections based on potential violations to state environment and health laws.

Other than such forums, communities have little influence on where an injection well can or cannot be placed. Local government also has limited voice, but that doesn’t bother Portage County Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio. Although local government officials in Cinninnati and Mansfield have passed laws banning injection wells, Marsilio said she and her two fellow county commissioners trust the ODNR.

“As a citizen or as an elected official, I am not going to be in the business of telling people, ‘Well look, here’s an activity that no science says it is unsafe, and it is otherwise legal to do, but some other people don’t like what you are doing with your property, so stop,’” Marsilio said. “I think that is a very slippery slope.”

Marsilio, a Garretsville resident who lives near Hiram Township, said she isn’t bothered by the number of injection wells in Portage County because ODNR regulates them effectively.

“I would have absolutely no problem with (an injection well) right beside my house,” Marsilio said. “Am I concerned about it being safe if the regulatory agency says it is safe? No, I am not.”

Trish Harness is another Garretsville resident who lives five miles from a cluster of seven proposed injection wells in Windham Township. Unlike Marsilio, Harness said she isn’t as confident in ODNR. She independently researches fracking and injection wells in depth, and she said despite new regulations, ODNR doesn’t go far enough in regulating how injection wells are built and what materials are used.

Harness said she also worries that Portage County and Ohio as a whole are being taken advantage of as a brine waste dumping zone.

Ohio deposited 525 million gallons of brine in 2011 — an increase of more than 163 million gallons from 2010. More than half of the brine in 2011 came from out-of-state.

“We should have higher prices for anyone transporting injection well fluids,” Harness said. “I think that is the best way to make sure whatever company is sending us the injection well fluid [is] paying their fair share of repairing the roads — if there’s an accident with additional cleanup involved.”

Ohio currently charges 5 cents for every 42-gallon barrel of brine deposited in-state and 20 cents for every barrel from out-of-state.

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for Governor Kasich to support communities that have to have injection well trucks pass through them,” Harness said.

Contact Simon Husted at [email protected].