Ohio Communities Are Becoming a Dumping Ground for the Fracking Industry

Earthquakes, spills, and groundwater contamination—wastewater wells come with many risks and few rewards for Trumbull County residents.
A 2015 oil spill at a Vienna, Ohio, injection site; the waste contaminated private wells, wetlands, and ponds, leaving dead wildlife in its wake.

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After she’s gone, Michele Garman wants to leave her 21-acre property to her son, Dominic, who is now just shy of 19 years old. He’s the fifth Garman generation to live on that tract of land—a patchwork of wetlands, forest, and apple orchard—in Ohio’s Trumbull County, and she hopes he’ll raise a sixth there someday.

“He loves Vienna,” says Garman of their small town on the Ohio–Pennsylvania border. “He loves his friends here. It’s home. He doesn’t want to leave, but he doesn’t like what’s next to us, either.”

The undesirable neighbor she refers to is a wastewater injection site, one of 17 such wells in the county with a possible half dozen more on the way. There, big trucks arrive daily to inject a slurry of water, sand, and various chemicals (some unknown) thousands of feet down into the earth’s bedrock for storage. The well next door to the Garmans’ land, built in 2016 by Copper Ridge Disposal, can accept up to 8,000 barrels of briny wastewater per day.

Within the past 15 years, the Marcellus Shale region (which includes areas in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Virginia) has seen a 540 percent increase in generated fracking waste. In 2014 alone, fracking in the United States produced more than 14 billion gallons of wastewater. Although the industry injects 98 percent of its wastewater into underground wells, science has yet to completely assess the practice’s potential impacts to surrounding communities—anything from traffic problems and noise pollution to groundwater contamination and earthquakes.

Michele Garman’s property borders a fracking injection well in Vienna, Ohio.

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“They pretty much inject a toxic soup into the ground,” says Garman, who found out about the well next to her home through a legal notice in the local paper. Although she submitted an objection to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Garman got little response. “I started worrying about pretty much everything at that point,” she says. “What did that mean for groundwater? How would it affect our family?”

“It’s torn up our community,” says Garman. “People feel like we’ve become a dumping ground.”

A Bad Deal

A few days before Easter Sunday in 2015, an accident at another Vienna injection site sent oily waste into a local creek; it flowed at least 3,000 feet downstream and turned the water orange. The spill contaminated private wells, wetlands, and ponds with a light-end petroleum, leaving dead fish, turtles, and muskrats in its wake. “It caused all kinds of chaos,” remembers Garman. “People worried about well water, whether they could cook their Easter dinners, whether they could bathe their kids.”

Just four years prior (this time on New Year’s Eve), an earthquake shook Youngstown in neighboring Mahoning County. The 4.0 magnitude quake was the strongest on record in Ohio, but just one of 109 tremors between January 2011 and February 2012 linked to the Northstar I deep injection site. Before 2011, no earthquakes had ever been recorded in the region.

Areas near injection wells in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico have experienced similar seismic activity. In a 2015 report, the United States Geological Survey determined that “an unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009 . . . We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells.”

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The ODNR shut down the Northstar I well in 2012, but it is just one of the state’s 215 active injection sites. Companies seeking permits for injection wells have easier access in Ohio than elsewhere, because it is part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control Program (UIC), which exempts participating states from federal wastewater regulations. States that didn’t adopt the UIC, like Pennsylvania, require the federal government to sign off on new injection wells, and thus have become less attractive places to set up storage wells. For instance, fracking operators in Pennsylvania, which has just eight active injection sites, truck much of their waste across the border into Ohio.

“The program has virtually no protections and no standards that states have to meet,” says Rick Sahli, a lawyer working on oil and gas issues in Ohio. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Ohio doesn’t require permit applicants to say what fracking companies plan on injecting into these wells, and the companies are even considering disposing of such “solid” waste on roadways and in wetlands, leading to the possible contamination of groundwater, soil, and air. Making matters worse, loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act exempt companies from disclosing the contents of their fracking fluids, which can include toxic substances such as arsenic, lead, formaldehyde, and mercury.

While these circumstances have put Trumbull County residents and others at risk, it has been quite lucrative for the state. Ohio receives 5 cents per barrel for in-state fracking waste, and 20 cents a barrel for waste generated across state lines. The money is shared by the property owner, the well operator, and the state legislature. Local communities receive nothing.

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Rejecting Injection

Trumbull County has had enough. State Representative Glenn Holmes proposed a pair of bills earlier this year to address some of the concerns over the injection wells. If passed, House Bill 578 would redirect the state’s well revenue back to the townships, giving nearly half the profit to local communities to mitigate the increased traffic, noise, and infrastructure needs that come with the fracking trucks that clog their roadways.

The second, House Bill 723, limits the number of wells in any Ohio county to 23 (the number Trumbull County would have if the six additional proposed wells are approved). While that number would be a steep increase for most counties, Holmes at least wants to stop the expansion in Trumbull. The porous sandstone and limestone lying beneath the county are especially suitable for deep injection wells, and Holmes worries that “if geology says we can have 100 wells that can take a billion barrels of fracking fluid, then we can conceivably have that.”

“It doesn’t have a prayer of passing,” says Sahli of House Bill 723. “The Ohio legislature is absolutely dominated by the oil and gas industry lobby.” A 2013 study by the watchdog group Common Cause showed that Ohio legislators received nearly $2 million in donations from the natural gas industry between 2011 and 2013.

Rick Hernandez, a trustee in Trumbull County’s Hubbard Township, lives about four or five miles from the nearest injection well. Hubbard itself doesn’t yet have any wells, but in July, Bobcat Holdings LLC filed for a permit to build one there. Ever since, Hernandez and fellow trustees have been petitioning against the proposal, which has so far received about 3,100 signatures from impacted counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania. They also began a letter-writing campaign against all six of the proposed new wells. Hernandez calls the wells an “environmental and social injustice,” since local residents neither profit from the injection sites nor have had much of a say in the placement of toxic waste in their towns.

“We’re speaking on behalf of the entire county,” says Hernandez. “We’re pushing it harder than it’s ever been pushed in this town because we’re a small, tight-knit community. They’re going to meet some heavy opposition here.”

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