"Industry likes to say, 'We've been doing this for years, it's not new technology, trust us, we know what we're doing,'" said Brad Kelley, a professor in the Science and Technology Studies Department at Virginia Tech. "But that doesn't mean the regulation or the oversight is really there."
Most everyone -- except for the fracking industry -- in Ohio would likely agree. Dr. Jeffrey Dick, the Chair of the Geology Department at Youngstown State University and the Direction of the Natural Gas and Water Resources Institute, said "We've been doing hydraulic fracturing [known as fracking] since the 1950s." But, he added, "We've been doing it in vertical wells." Ohio, he said, has 85,000 vertical fracking wells, with about 60,000 currently producing, to what's known as the Clinton Sandstone formation. But the first permit for horizontal fracking of the Utica-Point Pleasant Shale Formation was only issued in March 2011. By November, there were already 8 rigs drilling; today, there are 17. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) lists 75 more permitted wells on the public record, but Dick estimates there are closer to 100, because the staff can't keep up with listing the permitted wells online.
[For a visual representation of the fracking process, please click here.]
If the department can't even keep up with informing the public about the locations of permitted horizontal wells when there's less than 200, one is forced to wonder how rigorous their oversight is of the 65,000 active vertical wells. According to geologists, activists and Ohio residents sickened by pollution from those wells, the answer is: not very, and it never has been.
Jaime Frederick, a Mahoning County resident, moved into her dream house in rural Ohio where, like many residents, she got her water from a well. When her adjacent, but absent, neighbor signed a lease to allow a vertical fracking well on his land -- and placed the holding tank for the hazardous waste generated by the fracking right on their shared property line -- Frederick had her water tested in order to get a baseline assessment to allow her to sue if the drilling contaminated her water. Instead, she found that her water was already contaminated with a host of hazardous fracking byproducts, including barium, strontium, toluene, manganese, and her doctor found lead, arsenic and mercury in her blood, though the water wasn't tested for that -- all chemicals not naturally found in personal wells in the area. She then discovered that, unbeknownst to her and back in the woods, there were already 10 other fracking wells within a half mile of her house. "People are being intimidated, lied to by land men to sign, because they feel they'll just drill anyway and they won't get the money," she said, since horizontal drills can go deep under adjacent properties without additional leases.
But her problems didn't stop just by switching her drinking water or accepting that her home -- on which she was already underwater because of the housing bubble -- had lost its value. Instead, now she can see -- and smell -- the holding tank from her adjacent neighbor's fracking operation from her bedroom window, and note when it's full to the point of overflowing. But repeated calls about the hazardous spillage to the ODNT have gotten her labeled a nuisance caller, and efforts to get the EPA will occasionally get a tanker truck sent out to look at the storage tank. "There are not enough inspectors to make sure that the companies coming here are doing it properly," she said.
[Watch more of Frederick's story here.]
Jodi Stoyak, a Liberty Township Trustee, has seen the lack of oversight firsthand, too. "There are abandoned mines under my township," she said, "and I don't know if ODNR is even looking at that when they issue these permits." There's already been some collapses unrelated to fracking, but because fracking is intended to put pressure on the rock formations under the mines in order to force the release of oil and gas -- and because there's been almost no research into the potential consequences of fracking underneath abandoned mines -- she's rightly concerned that they could post problems that haven't yet been considered.
But it's not just the extraction operations that can cause the earth to move in Youngstown. In 2011, there were 11 recorded earthquakes around one well in the region. That well, however, wasn't extracting oil and gas from a fracking site: it was injecting hazardous waste into a similarly deep region in the Utica Shale formation. "The North Star #10 well, which is operated by D&L Energy," said Dick, is almost certainly behind the quakes. "The way it is designed, unbeknownst when it was permitted, is right in a fault line. Evidence suggests that the well's injections were triggering earthquakes." He added, "You'd have to be a fool to think it isn't the problem."
But why is there a well just for the purposes of injecting stuff into the earth rather than taking it out? Fracking, it turns out, creates a lot of liquid, hazardous waste. "It used to be disposed of in rivers, spread on roads and held in ponds hoping it would evaporate," said Dick. Now they inject it back into the earth below the water table on the theory that the waste that came from down there will remain down there when reinjected. And, Ohio, operating under a waiver from the EPA, is one of the only states in the immediate region that can permit such wells, known as Class 2 injection wells -- so they're been taking waste from Pennsylvania and New York and injecting it below Ohioans' feet.
Susie Beiersdorfer, an instructor in the Youngstown State Geology Department involved in the anti-fracking movement, notes that Class 2 injection wells aren't for "hazardous waste" per se: "Class 2 is for oil and gas byproducts," she said, "and although they're dangerous they're not considered 'hazardous' by the EPA, even if they are hazardous to human health." And although industry says that only 1 percent of the liquid waste generated by fracking is dangerous enough to require special methods of disposal -- like injection -- she says, "5 millions gallons of water injected into these wells, at 1 percent, that's still 50,000 gallons of toxins."
[Watch Susie Beiersdorfer lead a mic check a U.S. subcommittee field hearing on fracking here.]
Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer, a professor in the same department involved with Frackfree Mahoning Valley, said "And they're adding chemicals in the fracturing process," so even the toxic waste generated by fracking isn't exclusively chemicals that came from the fracking sites. He says that even if the government was adequately equipped to provide oversight, it wouldn't resolve the fundamental issues inherent to the process: pollution, earthquakes, the massive use of potable water from the region and the loss of the region's character. "It's a massive industrialization of rural America," he said.
Dick says residents' concerns about water usage may be well-founded. With the horizontal wells currently in operation, "Based on the info that is out there, they're using between 5 and 6 million gallons of water," he said, agreeing with Susie Beiersdorfer. "If you go to full scale development, say 600 wells [producing] per year, that could be a problem with the available water in Ohio."
He identifies some of the same problems with fracking as the environmental activists, though he doesn't count himself among their numbers. "The potential problem, which has always been out there with the oil industry, is spillage," both of the oil and gas itself and the hazardous byproducts. With fracking, he said, the issue is "How do you handle the flowback when you're done hydraulically fracturing -- flowback and 'brine,'" a term for the contaminated water byproduct of fracking which may contain salt but which usually contains other chemicals either injected into the wells or found inside of them. Dick says the unresolved issues that need to be resolved include "spillage, because it is hazardous; how do you reuse, recycle or reduce the amount of [waste water] created; and for the stuff you're left with, how do you dispose of it."
Stoyak, the township trustee, has a depressing answer to that: "Everything is political."
[Image via ProgressOhio on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.]