RELATED: Salty water fuels an acidic debate
By Robert Guttersohn
and Karl Henkel
Girard Mayor James Melfi found out about a brine- injection well in the same way his residents did.
“I read about it in the paper,” Melfi said of the soon-to-be injection well along U.S. Route 422 in the city. He became aware of it from a Vindicator article detailing the correlation between earthquakes and injection wells.
As it turns out, Melfi wasn’t alone.
The Vindicator has discovered that other local officials have been kept in the dark about the placement of injection wells.
Brine-injection wells are used to dispose of wastewater from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process in which water, chemicals and sand are blasted through pipes into rocks thousands of feet below the ground to unlock natural gas and oil. The wells are constructed with steel casing and cement to protect against contaminated water entering the ground.
Protocol at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which administers well permits, doesn’t require notification of city or township officials.
“Cities do not have any say,” Melfi said. “We’re not even notified about them.”
Ohio law stipulates three requirements for injection-well permits: a nonrefundable $1,000 application fee, an area of environmental review a half-mile around the proposed well and legal notice.
That legal notice is presented in a newspaper’s legal advertising section — for one day, said Tom Tomastik of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
There is then a 15-day waiting period for public complaints, at which point ODNR will host an informational meeting.
But once the 15 days are up — which was the case in Coitsville — where D&L Energy Inc. printed a legal notice in The Vindicator on Oct. 22. Township officials apparently didn’t see it; however, there will be a meeting on Nov. 21 at the town hall to discuss it.
But even if landowners oppose an injection well near their properties, there’s not much they can do.
“We can’t just deny a permit based on someone not wanting it there,” Tomastik said. “The only reason is if there is a relevancy to public health or safety.”
One of the concerns could be the correlation between injection wells and earthquakes.
It’s also a potential health concern, said John Pieton, Hubbard’s zoning administrator.
He first discovered by accident that Youngstown-based D&L planned to drill a brine-injection well along Yankee Creek.
On Oct. 6, Pieton said he received a county engineer’s report informing township trustees to expect heavy equipment on county roads. The reason for the heavy equipment alert was the placement of a brine-injection well. He plugged in the coordinates and found the location to be on Hubbard Masury Road, where it intersects the Little Yankee Run Creek.
The problem, he said, is the drilling would go through an underground aquifer that several township residents still use for their well water. It’s also only feet away from a flood plain. Little Yankee Run Creek empties into the Shenango River in nearby Pennsylvania, providing drinking water for several communities, Pieton said.
Injection wells are concrete and steel cased and do not pump water in ground formations near aquifer levels, but it still leaves Pieton wondering if Hubbard is an environmental disaster in the making.
“These decisions come from Columbus without them understanding what is going on,” he said.
The most prominent Valley well, in Youngstown on Ohio Works Drive, has accepted brine water for more than a year. City officials knew of D&L’s plans, but only because the company needed 7.5 acres of space for the well. It also requested, and was granted, a 10-year, 75-percent tax abatement, but not before council members received assurance that the well would pose no environmental risks.
Another well on Campbell city land is being considered by its city council, but many remain wary. Council has a say in the decision because it is city-owned land that it is considering leasing to D&L.
Those who seemingly don’t have a say aren’t sitting quietly.
Two weeks after the county report arrived in Pieton’s office, Hubbard trustees approved and sent a resolution to ODNR objecting to the proposed well. The formal objection noted the public health concern because of its potential location and the recent uptick in earthquakes. Tomastik said after the 15-day waiting period is up, a formal informational meeting will take place.
That still doesn’t sit well with Hubbard Trustee Chairman Fred Hanley.
“We have to live here, well after the companies are gone,” he said.
In late October, Hanley sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich, requesting the state place a moratorium on the injection wells. He believes more time should be devoted to understanding the possible side effects of the wells.
“This isn’t about preventing jobs,” Hanley said.
“God knows we need jobs. But if it’s toxic and prohibited in Pennsylvania, a mile-and-a-half away makes it OK?”
Melfi said he isn’t opposed to gas and oil drilling but would support a moratorium on injection-well drilling.
“I know nothing about them,” Melfi said. “All the earthquakes we’ve been having is rather unusual. Do we know if they are linked to these wells? No. But should we take time to gather information about them? Yes.”