MARIETTA - Ohio lawmakers are considering some new rules governing operation of 172 injection wells located throughout the state and used for disposal of wastewater from oil and gas hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," operations.
In 2011, more than 12 million gallons of wastewater from fracking operations-a briny mixture of salt and other chemicals-were pumped into Ohio's injection wells. That waste came from sources inside and outside the Buckeye State, according to Heidi Hetzel-Evans, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
"Approximately 55 percent of the brine came from out of state," she said. "That includes fluid used for production and flowback water from drilled wells. The salt brine is a natural byproduct that is produced throughout the life of oil and gas wells."
The injection wells channel wastewater deep into rock formations located thousands of feet below the earth's surface.
Most of the out-of-state brine comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Hetzel-Evans said the liquid is hauled into Ohio because the other states do not have underground rock formations suitable for injection wells.
"Statewide there are 195 permitted injection wells-172 of those are currently active sites," Hetzel-Evans said. "And there are another 16 wells that are in some phase of construction."
Currently there are 10 injection well sites in Washington County, and permits for two more are pending, according to the latest data from ODNR. The wells are located in Newport, Lawrence, Dunham, Barlow and Belpre townships.
Trustee Asa Boring said he hasn't heard any concerns about the two injections wells located in Belpre Township.
"If they're drilling these wells as deep as they say, and if the well casings are sealed, there shouldn't be any problems," he said. "And the brine haulers should be required to show a copy of their permit before they can unload at the well site."
Hetzel-Evans said recently-introduced Ohio Senate Bill 315 updates regulations governing injection wells that were initially put in place under Senate Bill 165 during the last half of 2010.
"One provision of SB 315 is tracking of the brines from cradle to grave," she said.
Oil and gas well operators are required to provide information on chemicals used in the fracking process. But SB 315 would require operators to report volume and chemical descriptions for every fluid used in every step of the drilling process, from the initial construction until the well is ultimately plugged.
The legislation would also require well operators to take water samples within 1,500 feet of a proposed horizontal well and report the results in their permit applications. Currently operators are only required to take samples within 300 feet of a proposed well site.
SB 315 would mandate that operators applying for a permit include the source of water they plan to use in the fracking process-whether it comes from the Ohio River or Lake Erie watersheds. Operators would also have to report the rate and volume of water that will be drawn from those sources.
Eric Fitch, director of the Environmental Science Program at Marietta College, said regulations for disposal of fracking wastewater are important for two basic reasons.
"It boils down to protecting public health and retaining some quality for the environment," he said.
Fitch believes the injection well process can be done safely, but it requires close monitoring and regulation.
"You can't have disposal of potentially hazardous wastewater without some kind of oversight," he said.
Fitch noted the wells may be drilled down thousands of feet, but a crack in the well casing could allow lateral movement of the wastewater at a higher level, possibly into an aquifer that provides a community's drinking water.
"This wastewater is often injected at tremendous pressure, and if there are fault lines in underlying rock formations, the sheer pressure could have an effect on those fault lines," he said. "Also the waste liquid can act as a lubricant that allows movement along fault lines."
A magnitude 4.0 earthquake that struck Youngstown in late December was linked to hydraulic fracturing operations in that area, and resulted in some new standards being developed for injection well permitting by the Ohio DNR.
"What happened at Youngstown was a very, very rare incident," said Hetzel-Evans. "But we wanted to add some safeguards."
Those criteria include a ban on drilling injection wells into Ohio's Pre-Cambrian rock formation that seismologists believe contains faults responsible for many of the state's earthquake activity.
"We can also add extra testing requirements for individual wells-both production and injection-and if a well needs something specific the department has the ability to include that as part of the permitting process," Hetzel-Evans said.