Five years after the 4.0 quake, Ohio is a seismic-monitoring leader, ODNR officials say.Tweet
In the five years since a magnitude-4.0 injection well- induced earthquake jolted the Mahoning Valley, Ohio has become a leader in seismic monitoring, state regulatory officials say.
That memorable, locally unprecedented earthquake rattled the Valley shortly after 3 p.m. Dec. 31, 2011.
It was one of 13 tremors between March 17, 2011, and Jan. 13, 2012, which the Ohio Department of Natural Resources determined were caused by a 9,000-foot-deep D&L Energy Inc. injection well on Ohio Works Drive in Youngstown, which was used for brine disposal.
Brine is the salty, chemical-laden water that returns to the surface after the hydraulic-fracturing (fracking) process that unlocks natural gas and oil deep underground.
Before that series of Youngstown earthquakes began, no quakes centered in the Mahoning Valley had ever been recorded.
“I believe we’ve had no felt [earthquake] events in [Ohio] injection wells since the Youngstown event,” of Dec. 31, 2011, said Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, whose Division of Oil and Gas regulates the drilling industry.
Rick Simmers, the state’s Division of Oil and Gas chief, seconded Zehringer’s observation and clarified that “felt” earthquakes are generally of a magnitude 2.5 or greater.
Lesser quakes are referred to as microseismic events, he noted.
Zehringer and Simmers were referring to the lack of felt injection-well-induced quakes in the last five years.
A magnitude-3.0 quake, however, linked to fracking shook Poland Township on March 10, 2014.
That and subsequent quakes were associated with fracking by Hilcorp. Energy Co. at the Carbon Limestone landfill.
ODNR said in April of that year the fracking likely aggravated a small, previously undetected fault. A fault is a fracture in rock.
ODNR imposed a moratorium on drilling at that site, but allowed Hilcorp. to recover oil and gas from five previously drilled wells with seismic monitoring.
“We’ve been very proactive. That was one of the charges we had from Gov. [John] Kasich at the very beginning,” Zehringer said. “We want to make sure the oil and gas industry is developed, but not at the expense of the citizens and the environment.”
“They [ODNR officials] have done a very sufficient job in protecting the human health, safety and environment of every Ohioan,” said Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “They have put forward very stringent rules and regulations on our industry to minimize the possibility of a human-induced seismic event.”
Zehringer and Simmers took office in November 2011 after considerable public attention had already been drawn to the Youngstown tremors.
“We were never in denial,” Simmers said.
In October 2011, however, just before they took office, when The Vindicator first raised the issue of a connection between seismic activity and the injection well, Heidi Hetzel-Evans, then an ODNR spokeswoman, said the agency stood by its regulations that permit the well operations.
“[ODNR has] not seen any evidence that shows a correlation between localized seismic activity and deep-injection well disposal,” she said at the time.
In fact, the network of seismometers in place before fall 2011 “was set up to monitor and detect larger scale earthquakes – 3.0 and higher. It wasn’t set up to monitor routinely anything below a 2.5,” Simmers explained.
That fall, ODNR installed more monitoring instruments to enable it to detect smaller unfelt earthquakes, Simmers said.
As it evaluated data in its computer file going back to March 2011, ODNR “began to see a trend of increasing microseismic events” that it believed were associated with the D&L well and ordered the shutdown of that well immediately before the 4.0 quake, Simmers said.
“We, in effect, froze the issuance of injection [well] permits during the majority of 2012,” until injection-well-induced quakes in Ohio could be better understood, he added.
“We got here in mid-November  and made a lot of proactive decisions, which led to us really having the right equipment in place and the ability to have reliable data and make the right decisions faster,” Zehringer said.
A Youngstown State University geology professor, however, said the state agency’s efforts can’t eliminate tremors.
“You cannot regulate against earthquakes. They’re going to happen whatever the regulations are,” Professor Raymond Beiersdorfer said.
“If you are injecting fluids under pressure now in the Youngstown area, you are going to get earthquakes because there’s a series of faults underneath,” some known and some unknown, he said.
A significant change in the regulatory environment occurred in June 2012, when Ohio Senate Bill 315 took effect, imposing additional safety measures in well-drilling and injection-well controls. That law requires companies to provide ODNR with detailed well-drilling and construction information to minimize risks.
“We assign conditions to permits. We have companies do geologic reviews and evaluations. We require the companies to do seismic monitoring,” Simmers said.
“We purchased many seismic units on our own, and these are among the most advanced units that are available today,” he added.
“We have a very interactive seismic network today. As a seismic event is recorded, whether it’s natural or [human] induced, within about three minutes, our smartphones and our computers are getting messages” about the event, he added.
“We have seismometers that can detect very low intensity seismic events,” and Ohio’s monitoring program for human-induced seismicity is among the most advanced in North America, he said.
“We’ve done a lot since 2012 to make this an effective program, and I think what you see as a result of this is: You don’t see continued induced seismic activity like you do in other states,” he observed.
“We limit the depth that a well may drill to inject – a key factor in minimizing the potential for induced seismicity,” Simmers said.
“Companies, especially for injection wells, are required to do what we call tracer or spinner surveys, where we look to see where the water is going when it’s injected,” he added.
Beiersdorfer said, however, “I personally think that we should have no deep injection wells in this area because of these faults.”
He added, however, if there are going to be such wells here, their depth should be limited to 7,000 feet to reduce the earthquake risk.
The D&L injection well wasn’t the only Valley location where injection well activity has been associated with earthquakes.
Two American Water Management Services injection wells on state Route 169 in Weathersfield Township were shut down Sept. 3, 2014, after a magnitude-1.7 earthquake hit nearby on July 28 of that year and a magnitude-2.1 quake hit the well site Aug. 30, 2014.
ODNR later authorized the reopening of the shallower of the two wells.
Beiersdorfer criticized ODNR for not disclosing the July 28 event to the public until mid-September, even through AWMS-maintained seismometers and five others operated by the state agency recorded that event.
“They need to make the data public in real time,” he added.
Beiersdorfer said he’s concerned the Weathersfield wells, located less than 3 miles from the Meander Reservoir dam, could trigger an earthquake that could cause that dam to fail.
ODNR officials declined to comment on AWMS matters because of litigation pertaining to the Weathersfield site.
On Dec. 23, Judge Kimberly Cocroft of Franklin County Common Pleas Court ordered the state to allow the deep-injection well to reopen.
In Vienna, a 2,000-gallon April 2015 oil spill at the Kleese Development Associates site on Sodom Hutchings Road, which fouled ponds, a stream and wetlands, was linked to surface storage and not to the injection wells or the pipes leading to the wells, Simmers said.
That cleanup is nearing completion, and the company hasn’t submitted any proposal for reconstruction of that facility, said Bob Worstall, deputy ODNR oil and gas division chief.
injection wells ‘very safe’
Despite problems associated with injection wells, Simmers said the use of those wells is “a very safe way to dispose of the brine,” and he cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding “that that’s one of the safest methodologies.”
If an alternative method is used, in which salt-laden brine is treated and discharged into surface waters, authorities need to be careful these liquid wastes “don’t have a cumulative, long-term impact on the waterway that they’re legally discharged into,” Simmers said.
Because “the cumulative impact was causing harm to some of the surface waterways,” Pennsylvania curtailed surface discharges of such treated oil field wastes in 2012. That decision resulted in some of that waste being sent to Ohio injection wells, Simmers said.
“As wells are being completed in Pennsylvania, and some in West Virginia, those waste streams are coming to Ohio because there’s no viable alternative for those volumes, especially in Pennsylvania,” Worstall explained.
The Youngstown-based Frackfree America National Coalition conducted a Dec. 7 protest outside the Coitsville Township Hall against the proposed operation of an injection well in that township.
The coalition cited earthquake and water-pollution risks it said that well might pose.
“There is really no safe way to deal with this” oil field waste, said the professor’s wife, Susie Beiersdorfer, a part-time YSU geology instructor and coalition co-founder.
“The stuff coming up in the drilling and then being injected down is radioactive. It’s carcinogenic,” [cancer-causing], she added.
“We’re not using what we should be using, which is called the precautionary principle – that, if there are concerns about the safety of this, it should be investigated more,” she added.
Simmers said, however, that deep-injection wells keep the oil field waste away from people and their drinking water sources.
“They’re the safest, most efficient way of disposing of this product,” Bennett said.
When the industry puts naturally radioactive brine into an injection well, “We are re-introducing that brine back to the subsurface, where it was already existing,” Bennett said.
In addition to the legal discharge of oil field waste, ODNR was confronted on Jan. 31, 2013, with the illegal discharge of such wastes into a Mahoning River tributary, which was ordered by Ben Lupo, D&L’s owner.
After he pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act, Lupo, 66, was fined $25,000, sentenced to 28 months in federal prison and released in October 2016.
Three of his employees, who also pleaded guilty to violating that act in connection with these discharges, were placed on probation.
Lupo’s lawyers said in a court filing that, after the earthquake-triggered closing of his disposal wells, he was running out of waste storage capacity. He ordered the illegal dumping to keep his employees working, according to court documents.
On Jan. 31, 2013, the very day ODNR received an anonymous telephone tip that Lupo’s employees were illegally discharging waste into a storm drain at night, two ODNR inspectors caught them in the act, Simmers recalled.
That triggered a multiagency investigation that included the U.S. and Ohio EPAs, he said.
A monthlong, $3.1 million cleanup ensued.
“The process works, and those rules and regulations are in place to make sure the bad actors are punished, but there should be no general characterization of our industry over one bad actor,” Bennett said.
“We followed through very effectively and had the law enforced very effectively,” Simmers added.