Locals Seek Control at Fracking Waste Wells

  • In Portage County, Ohio residents take advantage of a monthly water monitoring program to make sure their drinking water isn't contaminated with drilling chemicals. Photo: Julie Grant

May 29, 2015

Ohio is quickly becoming a go-to destination for the nation's frack waste—especially wastewater from drilling rigs in neighboring Pennsylvania.

When the water arrives, it’s filtered for sediment removal and then pumped into wastewater injection wells for permanent storage thousands of feet underground. But residents who live near these disposal wells argue that wells could leak or fail—leaving their drinking water contaminated with drilling chemicals or possible radioactivity.

“Everybody around these injection wells in these rural areas lives off their water wells,” says Gwen Fisher, a retired professor and community activist. “If it goes bad, they’re going to have to buy water.”

In Pennsylvania, the state has confirmed more than 240 cases where oil and gas operations have contaminated drinking water. And researchers at Penn State University recently found evidence that groundwater near a shale gas well in Bradford County, Pennsylvania was contaminated with drilling chemicals.

Residents also worry about the lack of control they have over oil and gas operations. A decade ago, Ohio changed its zoning laws regarding oil and gas operations—giving the state’s Department of Natural Resources authority which had previously been held by local authorities.

Pennsylvania tried to limit local zoning rights for oil and gas operations as part of Act 13, which was passed in 2012. But the state Supreme Court struck it down, upholding local control.

Gwen Fisher is a retired professor who is concerned about groundwater contamination from wastewater injection wells.

Gwen Fisher is a retired professor who is concerned about groundwater contamination from wastewater injection wells. Photo: Julie Grant

Ohio’s geology could also be making it a destination for wastewater injection wells. Robert Ryan, an attorney for Houston-based Stallion Oilfield Services, which owns three injection wells in Ohio’s Portage County, says the layers of underground rock in Ohio are better for wastewater storage and are easier to access than those in Pennsylvania’s hilly Appalachian Basin. He says it’s this combination of geology and regulations that makes Ohio attractive to gas companies.

“They do not make regulations just for the sense [sic] of making regulations,” Ryan says. “But they want us to do our jobs. They come out here and inspect us, and then they leave us alone if they find we’re doing our jobs.”

Some groups in Portage County and other Ohio communities have been trying to regain local control over fracking industry sites. Many cities have voted on a so-called “Community Bill of Rights” to assert more oversight over fracking issues. In Portage County, home to 18 wastewater disposal wells, voters rejected a ballot initiative like this last fall. At the state level, the Ohio Supreme Court struck another blow to local control when it upheld the state’s right to regulate energy sites earlier this year. Nationally, the debate over who should control zoning of oil and gas operations is playing out in eight states around the country.

Robert Ryan of Stallion Oilfield Services says it makes sense to decide energy development at the state level.

“It’s akin to the federal government regulating the drugs,” Ryan says.  “The FDA regulates drugs; each county doesn’t regulate what drugs you can take. And it makes more sense for the state to do it than to have part-time zoning board people decide whether someone can drill for oil and gas. They don't understand it and they don't have time to understand it.”

But some legal experts say the recent Ohio Supreme Court decision—the one upholding the state’s right to oversee oil and gas operations—left the door open for local governments to take some control. More than one justice pointed out that communities could limit fracking and related activities by passing noise laws or by using existing zoning laws to limit where roads can be built.

Meanwhile, in Portage County, there’s an effort to put the local control issue back on the ballot this coming fall.

Note: A version of this story originally aired on September 18, 2014.