By Jamison Cocklin
Ohio regulators soon will approve and permit large, exposed centralized impoundments that hold fracking flowback water.
These are used widely by oil and gas companies in other states to recycle the waste and serve multiple wells near one another.
The impoundments, or pits, which sometimes exceed the size of a football field and can hold millions of gallons of water, are now banned in Ohio.
But they’ve proved a useful asset to companies operating in other states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The impoundments serve as water-transfer stations for multiple wells nearby, greatly reducing the amount of truck traffic and the water necessary to drill and frack those wells.
Current Ohio regulations permit use of lined impoundments that hold freshwater for drilling. Flowback, or fracking waste- water, however, must be stored above ground in covered steel tanks before disposal or reuse.
But effective Jan. 1, the centralized impoundment pools will be authorized by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as part of a regulatory change state legislators made in the biennial budget bill signed in June.
Changes to the law likely came after input from the industry. Operators consider centralized impoundments a key to further developing the Utica Shale play.
“These facilities are critical in the recycling and reuse process and help to reduce truck traffic and the need for impoundments for individual well sites,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Texas-based Range Resources, which does not hold acreage in Ohio but is the largest operator of impoundments in Pennsylvania, where it has extensive operations. “Impoundments have reduced tens of thousands of truck loads in Pennsylvania and have allowed companies to utilize larger sources of water like the Ohio River.”
A shale well typically requires between 1 million and 8 million gallons of water to complete. Water from the wells generally comes from nearby, either from a public water supply, pond or lake. Trucks and pipelines are required to carry the resource to the drilling site.
In September, at an oil-and-gas conference in Youngstown, Harry Schurr, general manager of Utica operations for Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy, said central impoundments in Ohio would significantly aid further development here and help meet the demand for water in southern parts of the state where it’s not as abundant.
Schurr said it also would help Consol, which has drilled about 215 wells in Pennsylvania and Ohio, to recycle the vast amount of water it requires for its operations. He added that the company hoped ODNR might soon approve the impoundments and believed it would do so based on interactions the company has had with regulators.
Consol spokeswoman Lynn Seay wrote in an email that, “We understand the ODNR is currently reviewing a regulatory approach to allowing the use of centralized impoundments, and we look forward to that possibility.”
Mark Bruce, an ODNR spokesman, said the agency is developing rules “that will clearly define standards regarding the construction, length of use, design and other factors” of impoundments.
The move is likely to rankle oil-and-gas industry opponents, who three years into the play claim the state has become a dumping ground for wastewater. They’ve taken aim at Ohio’s injection wells, where the most recent ODNR data show that 14.2 million barrels of fluid were disposed of underground in 2012.
The centralized impoundments, which are roughly 200 feet wide and 300 feet long, or larger, likely are to draw the attention of critics.
But engineers inside and outside the industry claim that when the pits are designed and built correctly, they are entirely safe.
Fracking waste includes salt, dissolved solids and light radioactive and toxic metals from its contact with underground rocks. Chemicals added to the mixture contain volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and toulene.
Pitzarella said misconceptions about the impoundments remain, despite safeguards and a closed-loop system.
After use at a well site, the water is conditioned and some salt and dissolved solids remain. It is then transported and stored at an impoundment until its next use when it is mixed with freshwater for drilling.
The mixture is sometimes circulated to prevent bacteria growth. Layers of synthetic materials form a double- lined seal, and a catch basin with a leak-detection system is installed between those layers. Other measures, such as additional leak detection and ground-water monitoring wells, help operators oversee any problems.
John Quaranta, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University, said if the impoundments are constructed properly, they pose no hazards.
But a study he led for legislators and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection last year found that isn’t always the case.
In an examination of 15 well sites in the state, Quaranta and other WVU researchers found that some pits were poorly constructed, while the state inspectors sent to examine the sites had little or no structural knowledge of impoundments. Though netting is often placed above the impoundments to keep wildlife out, researchers also found garbage in some pits.
The impoundments have led to fierce debate in other states, where some residents have complained about odors and what has seemed like the permanency of the pits, which are only supposed to be temporary and reclaimed after drilling.
Quaranta said it’s imperative that Ohio regulators provide strict guidelines on the construction, permitting and reclamation of impoundments when they’re authorized in the state.
“ODNR is concentrating the necessary resources to write and develop these rules understanding that effective, strong and clear regulations provide the maximum protection of human health, safety and the environment, while also allowing for the responsible development of Ohio’s natural resources,” Bruce said in an email.