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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is drafting rules that for the first time would regulate the use of temporary in-ground pits to hold wastewater produced during the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.
When a well is drilled, some of the water settles underground, but some waste fluid containing salt, dissolved solids, chemicals and small amounts of radioactive and toxic metals flows back to the surface.
In the past, Ohio required drillers to store the waste in above-ground storage tanks. But as of Jan. 1, updated state law authorized the use of pits to store flowback fluids for recycling, processing and other purposes.
Regulation of the storage systems falls to ODNR’s oil and gas division, headed by Rick Simmers.
There, regulators and researchers have been devising rules that would define standards for permitting, construction, monitoring and other factors, Simmers said in a recent interview.
Companies would be required to submit plans for a wastewater pit to ODNR before they are allowed to begin construction. The oil and gas division would review the plans to ensure they are in line with new ODNR standards.
One such standard would pertain to the way in which the pits are lined to protect against leaks. Though the rules would not mandate specific materials to be used in liner construction, they would require companies to submit specific plans for ODNR approval.
Companies could opt to use a multiple-plastic liner system, a concrete system with plastic liner or other methods, Simmer said.
“There are a lot of ways to achieve these things,” he said. “The company would figure out what they think the best engineering is. They’d make that proposal on their application, and we’d decide whether we agree or not.”
Companies also would have to develop multifaceted monitoring plans for ODNR’s approval. In addition, companies would have to detail how the facilities would be monitored daily and over time, and outline a monitoring system to detect any leaks soon after they occur, Simmers said.
The new rules would require companies to keep detailed records, conduct random sampling and report any problems to ODNR.
ODNR officials also would be authorized to conduct periodic inspections, Simmers said.
Though Simmers was unclear on how long the rules would authorize the use of pits, he said it will not be for an indefinite period of time. Companies would have to get ODNR approval to renew permits on the pits after a period of some months.
There also will be size limits on them, but neither Simmers nor an ODNR spokesman had specific information on the dimensions.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said wastewater pits could be built at production sites, at injection wells or in between facilities.
Though the pits would allow for increased recycling of fracking wastewater and accelerate operations, he said that not all companies are interested in building them.
“I just don’t know if everyone wants it or needs it or that it fits their business model,” he said.
The pits are widely used by drillers in other states, including Pennsylvania.
Though Ohio has been slower to allow their use, the state recently has come around, likely because of interest on the part of the industry.
The change is troubling to Melanie Houston, director of water policy and environmental health at the Ohio Environmental Council. She said when she went to work on policy issues with OEC in late 2011, ODNR officials said the state would never allow the temporary pits for wastewater.
Houston was concerned that, if not properly fenced off, the pits could pose a threat to safety and prove hazardous for wildlife. She also said that evaporation into the air could endanger public health.
According to Houston’s understanding of ODNR drafts obtained through public records requests, the rules would set a threshold for an acceptable amount of leakage from the pits.
“It is our understanding that they expect these storage systems will leak, and there will be an amount that they are allowed to leak,” she said.
Houston said OEA and other groups are preparing comments on the rules for when they are released.
Under ODNR protocol, once posted, the rules will be available for public comment for a period of about 30 days. After that, they will undergo a “common-sense initiative” review process, before finally going to a joint committee of state legislators for hearings and additional comment.
There was no timetable on when the rules on wastewater pits would be released, but ODNR will start posting other rules packages soon.