Last week I blogged about explosions and a spill at a fracking operation in Ohio. More details are now available, and the reports offer a cautionary tale of all the things that can go wrong on a fracking site. Here are key conclusions from news reports and a U.S. EPA emergency response report:
- "Federal and state EPA officials had to wait five days before they were given a full list of the fracking chemicals" used at the site by Halliburton. While the company gave information to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) two days after the disaster, it is reported that ODNR did not share this information with U.S. EPA or the Ohio EPA.
- The disaster was caused by a break in a hydraulic line that sprayed chemicals onto hot equipment, caused 20 trucks and more to catch on fire, and led to more than 30 explosions. The sequence of events began at around 9:00 a.m. on June 28. While the fire department left that day at around 7:00 p.m., the well was not shut in until after midnight--more than 15 hours past the initial reports of problems. Fracking flowback continued to be released for those 15 hours until the well was shut in. Fires continued to rekindle through July 2, and a tank was still burning on July 5--a week later.
- The chemicals ran into a small tributary of Opossum Creek, which then runs into the Ohio River. The location where Opossum Creek runs into the Ohio River is 1.7 miles upstream of a public water intake for West Virginia residents. It is estimated there were 70,000 fish killed by the chemical spill along 5 miles of stream before the Ohio River. Other animals, such as salamanders, frogs and crayfish, were also found dead. Officials say at this point that no drinking water has been contaminated and that air monitoring detected normal air quality.
- This major fracking operation was allowed to take place on a site where two slopes of the well pad had previously failed--the southern slope and the western slope. A landslide had already affected the creek in 2011 and the site had been found in significant non-compliance. Runoff from this most recent incident left the pad at multiple locations on the south and west sides of the pad--where the problems had occurred in the past. This appears to have been an unsafe location for such an intense industrial operation if there are unstable slopes so close to a body of water.
- Nearby families were evacuated until the site was safe enough for them to return home. Two families live within 600 feet of the well pad. Another 23 families live within a one mile radius. Fortunately, no one was injured by the fires or explosions.
- Chemicals detected in runoff include: acetone, benzene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, toluene, and more. These are chemicals that can have serious health effects. Next steps include an ecological assessment and remediation planning, and identifying the potentially responsible parties.
With so many troubling aspects of this disaster, we hope that important lessons are learned regarding the safeguards and regulations that need to be in place to reduce the risks of fracking to human health and the environment, including:
- Public disclosure of fracking chemicals before fracking is allowed to begin, including chemicals that are in formulas claimed to be trade secrets, so that first responders and regulatory authorities have the information they need to protect the public and the environment.
- Greater setbacks from homes, schools and other priority areas to adequately protect human life and safety. Such large scale industrial operations involving dangerous chemicals and radioactive materials should not be occurring this close to where people live.
- Greater setbacks from streams and other water bodies. accounting for any steep slopes, to create protective buffers for clean water, aquatic habitat and drinking water supplies.
- More safety restrictions for sites including avoidance of steep and unstable slopes and the highest level of runoff prevention measures.
- Comprehensive baseline testing of air and water before any fracking in order to to fully understand environmental impacts after industrial operations and incidents. One positive lesson that comes out of this incident is that the operator of the well, Statoil, had "previously sampled all [water] wells within 5,000 feet of well head prior to commencing operations." We don't have any details regarding Statoil's baseline testing program but, in general, baseline testing should be mandatory everyplace.
Last year I blogged about an investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey into a fracking fluid spill and resulting fish kill in Kentucky. The USGS concluded: ""Our study is a precautionary tale of how entire populations could be put at risk even with small-scale fluid spills." I wrote that this Kentucky incident illustrates, among other things, the toxicity of fracking fluid and wastewater and why we need safe setbacks to protect important water sources.
Sadly, harmful incidents continue to occur. The good news is that no one was injured by this Ohio incident. The public will be closely watching regulators to see how the law is enforced, what penalties are imposed, and what regulations are put in place to stop this type of disaster from happening again in the future, putting people and the environment at risk.