New Ohio Fracking Waste Underground Injection Rules Still Second Class
This afternoon I filed a technical comment letter with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) on behalf of NRDC and ten other organizations and individuals regarding the changes that ODNR is making to its rules governing the disposal of wastewater from fracking into underground injection wells. In the comments we filed today we point out a number of specific, technical ways in which these new rules don’t go nearly far enough to address both seismic and groundwater contamination risks.
Ohio’s injection wells have made headlines recently because of the massive increase of fracking wastewater that is projected for disposal in the next few years. With each fracking operation requiring millions of gallons of water, and with thousands of wells projected to be drilled in Ohio (not to mention wastewater trucked into Ohio from Pennsylvania and potentially other states), billions of gallons of contaminated wastewater will likely be injected underground in the state according to the rules that ODNR is now in the process of revising. Such a large volume of fluid and number of potential wells means that even a small failure rate could have significant negative consequences for human health and the environment.
An ever-increasing amount of evidence demonstrates that oil and gas wastes are toxic and have had substantial negative effects on human health and the environment. But because oil and gas waste has been given a special exemption from federal hazardous waste requirements, it is not subject to the same rigorous testing and disposal requirements as other toxic wastes under federal law. When it comes to underground injection, that means that oil and gas waste is subject, literally, to second-class rules (they are known as “Class II Underground Injection Control” rules) that are significantly weaker than the “Class I” rules governing disposal of other hazardous waste. In particular, the Class II rules are less stringent in ensuring that injection wells are not sited in areas where there are existing fault lines, abandoned wells, or other subsurface geological features that would increase the risk of earthquakes or groundwater contamination. The Class II rules also require less rigorous monitoring and testing to ensure that injection wells continue to function properly once underground disposal begins.
The high-profile, nationally reported earthquakes last December in Youngstown, Ohio that were linked to nearby injection wells provided the state with plenty of reason to update its Class II rules. In response to this incident, ODNR is expanding the scope of the reviews of seismic risk that it may require when a new injection well is sited. Yet even though ODNR issued a press release in March saying that it was going to require stronger standards in its new Class II rules, the rules are written in terms of what ODNR may require for injection wells, not what it shall require. In other words, the rules don’t establish clear, uniform requirements that will be applied to every well. Without requirements that are applied across the board, there will be no reliable way to be sure that the same environmental protections are applied to every injection well permit. Rather, full and fair implementation the rules will depend on the vagaries of who happens to be in charge of the permitting process at any particular moment in time. Even if we take the current ODNR leadership at its word that it is fully committed to implementing these rules, there is no guarantee that future administrations will share that commitment.
Ohio deserves better than a second-class set of rules to address the serious risks inherent in disposing of the billions of gallons of toxic fracking wastewater that are likely to be injected underground in coming years. There is no excuse for allowing this toxic waste to be disposed of less carefully than other hazardous materials.
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