Ohio must not rush to dive headfirst into fracking ponds

Elephants are notorious as the heaviest drinkers of water in the animal kingdom, guzzling down 53 gallons of the precious natural resource a day. The thirst of elephants, however, can’t stand a candle to the volume of water consumed by that insatiable energy behemoth called hydraulic fracturing, better known by its nickname, fracking.

In recent months, water has risen to the surface of the simmering hot and sometimes frenzied debate over the moral imperatives surrounding fracking for oil and natural gas.

Fracking, as most know by now, refers to the procedure of creating fractures in rock formations by injecting massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals into cracks to force them open. The larger fissures allow massive quantities of oil and gas to flow out and be processed.

Just how much water does it take to produce usable natural gas and oil from shale rock 20,000 feet below the Earth’s surface? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average fracked well demands a whopping 4.4 million gallons to work its magic. That’s equivalent to the amount of water that 11,000 American families use daily to survive.

That’s a lot of water, and a lot of water filled with potentially dangerous and sometimes toxic waste products. Enter one of the newest and most popular trends in managing and recycling that water for future use: impoundment ponds, alternately known as fracking pits or lagoons.

Oil and gas drillers use the lagoons to store millions of gallons of water contaminated with fracking chemicals, toxic metals and other wastes that come up from shale wells. Companies clean the ponds of pollutants so the water can be recycled to frack new wells.

As Vindicator business writer Jamison Cocklin reported earlier this month, the impoundment ponds have become the darlings of the drilling industry. “These facilities are critical in the recycling and reuse process and help to reduce truck traffic and the need for [smaller] impoundments for individual well sites,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Texas-based Range Resources.

To be sure, football-field sized impoundment ponds hold many benefits, not the least of which is conservation of millions of gallons of water daily through safe and properly regulated techniques. They also lessen use of injection wells, whose dangers in triggering earthquakes are all too familiar to Mahoning Valley residents.

Jury’s out

Nonetheless, the jury still appears to be out on the efficiency and safety of frack pits. For example, the Columbus Dispatch reported recently that a West Virginia University study of 15 waste and freshwater impoundment lagoons in that state detected several problems. Eight were built to contain more water than permitted or had structural problems that threatened leaks.

Anti-fracking advocates fear the impoundment ponds pose a serious threat to groundwater and streams. “At the very least, it’s an environmental health concern,” said Trent Dougherty, an Ohio Environmental Council attorney.

John Quaranta, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at West Virginia University, said it’s imperative that Ohio regulators provide strict guidelines on the construction, permitting and reclamation of impoundments.

We concur. They must also ensure inspections of the ponds are comprehensive and rigorous.

If conducted properly and thoroughly, developing formal rules for frack-pond permits will require more than the 75 days remaining before Ohio is scheduled to begin permitting the pits Jan. 1.

As we’ve argued throughout the growth of fracking in our region, safety concerns must never take a backseat to economic self-interest. That’s why ODNR regulators should solicit input on the rules aggressively and take all the time needed to ensure impoundment ponds in the Buckeye State debut productively and safely.

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