Portage County injected enough drilling wastes deep into the ground in 2012 to fill a train of tanker cars that would stretch nearly 37 miles from downtown Akron to the center of Garrettsville.
State records show that Portage was No. 1 in Ohio last year for waste injections, delivering 2,358,371 million barrels of brine and other wastes into 15 active wells — nearly two-thirds of it from out of state. The volume grew 18.7 percent from 1,986,653 barrels in 2011.
Portage has two other wells that are permitted but not yet active.
By itself, Portage County took in 16.6 percent of the drilling waste injected below ground in Ohio.
The wastes come from the boom in horizontal fracturing in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations. The new, deep horizontal wells are extracting huge quantities of natural gas, oil and other lucrative byproducts. Both the drilling process and well production produce liquid wastes.
Injection wells are Ohio’s main method for disposing the waste from the new wells. It can also be recycled. But the wells are accompanied by controversy.
They have triggered earthquakes in Youngstown and elsewhere, and new research published last week suggests that natural earthquakes in other parts of the world might cause smaller quakes in faults near injection wells.
Critics are convinced that such wells are a threat to aquifers that provide drinking water. Some Ohio communities and grass-roots groups have called for a ban on injection wells.
The state and the energy industry say pressurized injection wells are safe, not a problem and the best way to safely get rid of such wastes.
“Ohio has the toughest injection rules in the United States. Hands down, we’re more stringent than the federal government,” said state geologist Tom Tomastik at a recent public meeting in Portage County.
Northeast Ohio a player
Statewide, Washington County on the Ohio River at Marietta was No. 2 for injections with 2 million barrels in its 10 wells. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, other top counties were:
3. Trumbull County (Warren) 1.4 million barrels.
4. Ashtabula County (northeast corner of the state) 1.4 million barrels.
5. Noble County (between Marietta and Cambridge) 931,379 barrels
6. Stark County, 16 active wells, 772,347 barrels.
Portage and Stark counties have more injection wells than other counties because they sit at the northern edge of the Clinton sandstone that was extensively drilled in the 1970s and 1980s, said geologist Jeffrey Dick of Youngstown State University.
That proximity to companies drilling vertical-only wells decades ago resulted in Northeast Ohio becoming the center of injection in Ohio, he said.
Locally, other counties with injections last year were Wayne County, 96,533 barrels; Summit County 66,385 barrels into a well in Cuyahoga Falls; and Medina County, 1,560 barrels.
Ohio accepting waste
Out-of-state shipments account for 57.6 percent of the waste going into Ohio’s injection wells, up from 54 percent the previous year.
In 2012, 6 million barrels came from Ohio drillers and 8.2 million barrels from other states, mostly Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The incoming waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone grew by 19 percent from 2011.
Today, Ohio has 211 permitted wells, with 21 not yet operating. Another 20 requests for permits are pending. That contrasts with five wells for drilling wastes in 1978. The industry estimates that 300 to 350 such wells could be in operation in the next five years because of growing demand.
In all, the state injected 14.2 million, 42-gallon barrels of liquid waste that went into the 180 operating wells in 2012. That volume could fill a train of tank cars extending 220 miles. That’s the distance from Akron to Pittsburgh and back again.
The state total reflects a 12 percent increase from 12.6 million barrels in 2011.
Growth concerns critics
Following the sharp growth in 2012, injections tapered off 5 percent statewide and in Portage County in the first quarter of this year, according to state reports. Mark Bruce of ODNR suggests that a decline in drilling in Pennsylvania and increased recycling of wastes might be the cause.
But critics of injection wells are unfazed.
The sharp growth last year is troubling to activist Teresa Mills of Columbus, fracking coordinator for the Buckeye Forest Council.
“Frankly, we’re pretty shocked at the big jump from 2011 to 2012,” she said. “That’s not a small jump … and it’s very telling.”
Said Melanie Houston of the Ohio Environmental Council: “It’s no secret that Ohio is becoming a dumping ground for other states, and that’s very troubling.”
There were reports that drilling in Pennsylvania had slowed in 2012 because of low prices being paid for natural gas, but the volume of drilling waste from Pennsylvania grew significantly, she said.
The increase in waste going into Ohio injection wells also means there is less available capacity for Ohio drillers, she said.
“We don’t believe that Ohio can sustain this kind of growth without creating problems,” she said.
She warned that huge growth could be ahead as an infrastructure of pipelines and processing plants is put in place, allowing for more exploration. That means that the Ohio liquid-waste volume will start climbing, she said.
Ohio does not require a cradle-to-grave system that tracks wastes from the drilling site to disposal, she said. Instead, Ohio is allowing construction of new centralized waste-processing facilities like one at New Matamoras near Marietta, built by GreenHunter Water LLC. That facility will be able to mix wastes from Ohio and other states and make it more difficult to accurately track the sources.
There is little Ohio can do to stop shipments of drilling wastes from other states. That’s because such shipments are interstate commerce and are protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Injection wells came into the spotlight in late 2011 after a series of small earthquakes rocked Youngstown. Similar events were reported in other states with drilling.
In the Youngstown case, the state reported that liquid wastes were being injected near a previously unknown fault line. The liquid, in effect, helped the rocks slip along the fault, triggering the quakes. The well was shut down, and Ohio imposed a moratorium on new injection wells that has since been lifted.
“It’s not safe. There’s a very significant risk involved,” said Nathan Johnson, a staff attorney with the Buckeye Forest Council.
“Ohio does not have a magic geology that can swallow all this wastewater without repercussions,” said scientist-activist Julie Weatherington-Rice of Columbus.
The drilling industry defends injection wells as safe, noting that they have been used since the 1930s.
Ohio is handling a small percentage of the U.S. drilling wastes that get injected. Ohio takes in one-half of 1 percent of all wastes, says David R. Hill of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which has three injection wells in Guernsey County.
Nationally, 50 million barrels are injected every day into 144,000 Class 2 injection wells for drilling wastes.
West Virginia has 62 injection wells, and Pennsylvania and New York each have fewer than 10 injection wells.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.