Water contamination worries surface over drilling procedure
By Grace Wyler
The natural-gas FRENZY has put local landowners in the middle of a contentious debate over the environmental costs of drilling.
As oil and gas drillers prepare to tap into eastern Ohio’s lucrative shale formations, the industry has increasingly come under fire from landowners and environmentalists who claim drilling techniques are contaminating water supplies.
The conflict centers around a common drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing. The process, used in nine out of 10 of the country’s gas wells, involves millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals pumped into a well to break apart the rock and release the gas.
On a recent morning, Pebble Beach Court — a sleepy, affluent neighborhood off of Tippecanoe Road — got a glimpse of the controversial practice that has sparked widespread political and environmental argument.
Trucks lined up along the quiet street, pumping more than 121,000 gallons of water and 50 tons of sand deep into the earth at high pressures.
The new well is owned by EverFlow Eastern, a Canfield-based oil and gas company that has been drilling in Northeast Ohio since the early 1980s. The company drills into the Clinton Sandstone, a thick gas reservoir prevalent in much of eastern Ohio.
EverFlow uses hydraulic fracturing to drill all of its wells, said Tom Wood, a petroleum geologist contracted by EverFlow. Without the technique, it would be impossible to access natural gas trapped in the Clinton’s tight pores.
“Hydraulic fracturing is an integral part of every one of the wells that we drill — they have to be hydraulically fractured to be commercially productive,” he said. “Not once have we messed up a water well.”
Wood added that he has hydraulically fractured more than 1,300 wells without incident.
The well construction process is designed to protect the water supply, said George Strawn of EverFlow. Wells are lined with steel pipe casing that extends below aquifers and solid cap rocks into the targeted geological formation.
Hydraulic fracturing occurs at least 5,000 feet below the surface, Strawn said, making it unlikely that the chemicals used in the process could cause contamination in the water supply.
Chemical additives make up only a small portion of the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, said Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Program, an industry-sponsored educational initiative. Sand and water make up about 99.5 percent of the solution, with the chemicals serving as a “propellent” to reduce friction and keep the formation open so natural gas can move into the well, she said.
The process, which has been used in commercial wells since the late 1940s, is a major technological advancement for the drilling industry, Reda said.
“You are not going to drill a well today without using this kind of production-enhancing technique.”
Both Strawn and Reda conceded that problems can arise from improper well construction or careless well operation. There have also been cases of water contamination from hydraulic-fracturing wastewater, the briny fluid that returns from the bottom of the well. This chemical-laden water is sometimes stored in open pits until it can be shipped to wastewater treatment facilities or put back into underground injection wells.
Flawed or leaky pits have resulted in some instances of groundwater contamination.
But Reda emphasized that Ohio has never had a case where hydraulic fracturing was cited as the source of water contamination, a claim confirmed by state records.
Natural-gas drilling is regulated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Minerals Management. The division’s 21 full-time agents oversee about 34,000 natural gas wells.
There are 10 agents assigned to the 16 counties in Northeast Ohio, said Tom Tugend, deputy chief of the division. The agency expects to add 16 agents by the end of 2011, thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, he said.
The new law, Senate Bill 165, ends the regulatory program’s reliance on the state’s general revenue fund. As a result, regulators’ salaries are now paid by fees assessed from drilling companies.
Tugend said he does not anticipate any major changes will have to be made to accommodate new drilling techniques, despite the increased environmental footprint of shale wells.
“It’s all going to depend on how much activity is going on and when it starts to happen,” he said. “We are comfortable with our current laws — we have a lot of latitude in the permitting process.”
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has limited oversight over possible contamination from oil and natural gas drilling, said agency spokesman Mike Settles. Hydraulic fracturing is currently exempt from regulations under the federal Safe Water Act.
The state EPA’s role has largely been limited to working with companies that want to recycle the hydraulic fracturing wastewater through municipal treatment plants.
Warren is the first Ohio community to get preliminary approval to accept wastewater from hydraulic fracturing. In September, the EPA issued a proposed permit modification to allow the Warren Pollution Control Center to accept up to 100,000 gallons of recycled hydraulic fracturing wastewater per day.
Patriot Water Treatment, a Warren-based company, will bring in the wastewater from Marcellus Shale wells and pre-treat it to remove metals before it enters Warren’s municipal system.
The challenge with hydraulic fracturing wastewater is the high content of total-dissolved solids, or salts, Settles said.
“Our concern is that the wastewater treatment plants don’t have the ability to remove this salt,” he said. “The only solution is to dilute it with treated water.”
If this process is not controlled properly, the salts could cause water-quality problems in streams that receive treated wastewater, such as the Mahoning River, Settles said.
Results from a pilot test in Warren have shown no negative outcomes, according to a September news release from the Ohio EPA. The increase in total-dissolved solid concentration is “not expected to cause significant biological impacts to the Mahoning River or impact downstream drinking water sources,” the release said.
The permit was scheduled to take effect Dec. 1.
Warren and Patriot have appealed the 100,000-gallon-per-day limit set by the EPA, Settles said. Patriot has also approached other municipal wastewater treatment plants in the region about similar arrangements.
“We want to take a cautious approach and see how this works,” Settles said. “There is a cumulative impact here — we could get to the point where we are salting up our streams.”