Millions of Barrels of Marcellus Drilling Wastes Injected Below Akron-Canton Area

Charleston Gazette
23 October 2011
By McClatchy Newspapers

AKRON, Ohio -- Over the last four years, enough yellow-brown, salty liquid has been injected thousands of feet under Ohio's Portage County to fill railroad tank cars stretching for 63 miles.

Injecting that waste underground made Portage County No. 2 in Ohio.

From 2007 through 2010, Portage County injection wells handled nearly 4 million 42-gallon barrels of waste, according to records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Mineral Resources Management.

That's nearly 168 million gallons.

As the drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" grows in horizontal wells in shale deposits under Ohio to unlock oil and gas deposits valued at billions of dollars, so will the production of drilling fluids that must be re-deposited deep underground through Ohio's injection wells.

Nearly 50 percent of the waste being injected in Ohio in 2011 is coming from Pennsylvania, where a drilling boom into the Marcellus shale is already under way.

Pennsylvania last May banned shipments of drilling waste to its sewage treatment plants for discharge to local streams, and the state has only eight injection wells because of its underground geology.

Ohio, on the other hand, has 181 wells.

Ohio drillers are worried that the flood of Pennsylvania shipments will reduce available space for Ohio waste, as drilling into the potentially lucrative Marcellus and Utica shales spreads into Ohio, says Tom Stewart, executive director of the 1,500-member Ohio Oil & Gas Association.

Ohio cannot ban such shipments from other states because they are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

The anticipated boom in Ohio shale drilling will increase opportunities for supporting businesses, such as the people who lease their land for injection wells and the companies that haul the briny wastes.

Roger Root, who lives in Trumbull County's Newton Township, has three injection wells on his family's 168-acre farm, and they have not caused any problems, he said.

"To be honest, you sort of forget that they are there," he said of the wells just east of the Portage-Trumbull county line.

With the family's drinking-water wells, there have been "absolutely no problems at all with our water" from the salty-oily wastes because of the wells' steel-and-concrete barriers, he said.

Some of the family's water wells are close to the injection wells that reach down more than 4,000 feet, the 58-year-old Root said.

The wells were drilled in the 1980s to extract natural gas but were changed over to injection when it became clear that no gas was to be found in that underground formation.

Root said he works with a reliable hauler, Ray Pander Trucking.

The firm, based in Palmyra Township, handles drilling wastes from Ohio and Pennsylvania at its eight injections wells in Portage, Stark and Trumbull counties, said spokesman R.C. Pander, Ray's son.

The company, with 30 employees and 22 trucks, hauls three commodities: fresh water for drilling, brine from wells that are operational and flowback water that comes from the drilling process.

In 2010, the firm handled about 400,000 42-gallon barrels of drilling wastes from as far away as Williamsport, Pa., said R.C. Pander.

The volume of wastes is up 74 percent from 2010 to 2011 and it's up about 20 percent from the first quarter of 2011 to the second quarter, he said.

In the last quarter of 2010, the firm got about 5 percent of its drilling wastes from Pennsylvania. That grew to 23 percent from January through March and to 47 percent from April through June, he said.

In Ohio, the volume of injections may increase nearly 50 percent from about 6 million to 7 million barrels prior to 2010 to more than 9 million this year.

The state's 181 wells are in 36 counties.

From 2007-2010, Ohio injected more than 28 million barrels or nearly 1.2 billion gallons. That would create a train that would stretch 450 miles from Akron to Richmond, Va.

State records show that Ohio has injected nearly 162 million barrels of drilling wastes since 1978. That's more than 6.8 billion gallons. That's enough to create a train stretching 2,520 miles from Akron to Houston, Texas, and back.

The Akron-Canton area is playing a big role.

Portage and Stark counties each have 16 wells -- the most in the state.

Although it has fewer wells, Washington County at Marietta injected 4.2 million barrels from 2007-2010, slightly more than Portage.

Stark County ranks third for volume with nearly 2.6 million barrels in that time.

Summit, Medina and Wayne counties together accounted for another 500,000 barrels during that period.

Under state law that went into effect in 1985, all drilling waste liquids in Ohio must be injected underground through pressurized wells that extend into brine-bearing formations or depleted gas-oil formations.

State officials say there is no evidence that the wells have created environmental problems, but critics remain skeptical, worried that drinking water is at risk.

The wastes are high in total dissolved solids and contain sodium chloride, calcium and magnesium, plus toxic chemicals from the drilling process and low levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials from the underground rock.

Other trace elements commonly found in brine include barium, zinc, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury and nickel.

Experts note that drinking water is much closer to the surface, far away from the injection zones and separated from the rock formations that get the injected liquids.

The injected liquids spread out within the confines of the rock layers, and that makes it impossible to predict how much remaining storage capacity Ohio might have underground. But it is likely extensive because of Ohio's geology and its extensive drilling history. The industry began using injection wells to dispose of brine in the 1930s.

But injection wells are coming under new scrutiny in some places.

Injection wells for drilling wastes have been banned from an earthquake-prone area of central Arkansas.

The state of Arkansas said in July that the ban was needed because of the likelihood that the disposal of natural gas drilling fluids was contributing to the frequency of the small quakes.

The ban covers about 1,150 square miles in two counties 45 miles north of Little Rock.

The action by the state Oil and Gas Commission closed one injection well. Three other wells voluntarily shut down.

More than a thousand small earthquakes have struck the area around the towns of Guy and Greenbrier over the last year. The biggest was a 4.7-magnitude quake on Feb. 27.

Two other injection wells voluntarily shut down last March, while state officials investigated. The number of quakes declined after those wells ceased operations.

Arkansas has about 500 injection wells.

Geologists have long suspected that injecting liquids into underground rock formations can trigger earthquakes along existing fault lines. The liquids allow rocks to flow more easily past each other.

But proving that injection wells have caused earthquakes is very difficult.

Injection-well operators contend that a clear link is missing and argue that Arkansas had earthquakes prior to injecting liquid wastes.

While Ohio officials say none of the operating injection wells have been linked to earthquakes, a now-closed well in Ashtabula County was.

From 1986 to 1994, millions of gallons of chemical wastes were injected under pressure to a depth of about 5,800 feet outside Ashtabula by Resource Environmental Services Inc.

That operation is linked to numerous small earthquakes than began in 1987 and continued to 2003, said Michael C. Hansen, state geologist and director of the Ohio Seismic Network.

The biggest quake was a 4.5 in early 2001.

Questions about earthquakes and injection wells have also been raised in West Virginia, Colorado and Texas.

R.C. Pander said he has been able to raise prices because demand for his services is growing.

A year ago, drillers paid $1 per barrel for brine and $2.25 a barrel for flowback water. The new rates are $3.50 and $4.75, respectively, he said.

His firm is looking into adding new injection wells at a cost of about $500,000 each.

One of the Pander injection wells sits in a wooded grove off state Route 5 not far from Root's farm.

That provides easy access to tanker trucks hauling Pennsylvania waste to Ohio and the site draws a steady flow of tanker traffic 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The brine goes first from trucks to a tank, then flows from tank to tank to be filtered before going to the injection well, which stands about six feet high. There are 11 tanks in all. The filtering is needed to keep mud in the brine from clogging the well, Pander said.

Some injection wells can handle 30 barrels an hour; others can handle up to 100 barrels an hour, he said. "We don't have any of those," he said with a laugh.

In Summit County, there is one operating injection well: at Keyser Park at West Bath and Northampton roads in Cuyahoga Falls.

It is owned by Moore Well Services Inc. and has been use for nearly 30 years, said company owner Jeff Moore.

The well that goes to about 7,185 feet pays royalties to the city of Cuyahoga Falls.

About 90 percent of the briny wastes comes from wells in Summit County with the rest coming from surrounding counties, he said.

Moore said his company, with offices in Hudson, handles virtually no flowback water and is not handling any drilling wastes from Pennsylvania. Most of the brine comes from the company's 200 wells, he said.

The injection well typically gets four to five trucks per day -- with each load being between 60 and 80 barrels or 2,520 to 3,360 gallons, he said.

His company has three trucks and 14 employees.

Root, with three injection wells on his farm, declined to say how he much he gets paid by Ray Pander Trucking for having the wells on his property.

"We're not millionaires and it's not enough to retire on," he said with a laugh.

But the payments made a big difference to his family in the 1980s, he said.

His stepfather, the late Robert Wolf, had lost his job and the injection-well payments kept the family afloat, Root said.

"We didn't have Christmas for a couple of years, but the payments made sure that the taxes were paid and that we didn't lose the farm," he said. "It helped save our farm. It saved us."