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Thom Cmar’s Blog

New Ohio Fracking Waste Underground Injection Rules Still Second Class

Thom Cmar

Posted August 15, 2012

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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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Elis WyattAug 16 2012 02:20 PM

Lets be honest. Some will view any law, no matter how stringent, to be "second class" up until the exploration, drilling, and production of cheap abundant resources is deemed illegal.

I certainly wish that I had a solar powered home, a wind powered car, and flew on battery powered airplanes. But the science doesn't exist yet.

LHAug 16 2012 02:40 PM

Actually Elis, the science exists for 2 of the 3 things you want.

Elis WyattAug 16 2012 02:57 PM

You're right LH.

What good is a solar powered home or an electric car if nobody can afford it?

LHAug 17 2012 10:03 AM

Way to shift the goalposts!

You're right though, it can be expensive. But it's obviously ridiculous to say "nobody" can afford them.

And at any rate, the price comparison is really the essence of the NRDC complaints. The fracking industry is an economic freeloader who is being allowed to pollute without bearing the cost of it, is exempt from several health regulations, and the costs of global warming aren't accounted for in nat gas pricing.

Force the industry to account for its true costs (aka let the free market work) and suddenly renewable energy looks alot cheaper.

Eils WyattAug 17 2012 02:13 PM

LH - I see what you're saying. I think the charges of being an "economic freeloader", etc. are a little rough.

Cheap dependable energy is CRITICAL to growing, much less sustaining our economy. Regardless of form, the cheapest and most efficient will always win. Legislation and regulation drives costs up in any arena.

A good overview of how the oil economy has shaped us is on YouTube. It's called "The Prize" and is an 8 hour mini series from PBS.

LHAug 17 2012 03:14 PM

The term is entirely appropriate and common in these situations. It even has a Wikipedia page!

And you seem to have missed my earlier point about costs - fossil fuels are NOT the cheapest in a libertarian free market. They're only the cheapest because they're freeloaders.

Also, there's good news on this front: the US has experienced GDP growth over the past couple years while CO2 emissions have fallen. So it's entirely possible to separate growth from "cheap" energy, despite fossil fuel industry claims to the contrary.

I'm well aware how oil and other fossil fuels have shaped us, thank you. I'm actually reading a book right now titled "Coal: A Human History" that talks about how the discovery of coal was the most important thing to happen to humans since fire. But just because they've been critical in the past doesn't mean they're entitled to this position for all eternity.

I used to get in disagreements with a regular NRDC poster named BS, who contorted himself (herself?) pretzel-like in being an apologist for dirty energy. He/she stopped posting a month or so ago. Your similar goalpost shifting and apologism make me wonder if you're being paid by the same company he was to post here (which was the only logical explanation for the posts he made). Maybe you're even the same person...

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