Highly radioactive wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania could be making its way into Ohio's deep well injection sites, according to a report by the United States Geological Survey.
Between 2009 and 2011, the USGS tested 52 samples of Marcellus shale wastewater, otherwise known as brine, from wells in Pennsylvania and New York. The resulting report, compiled in December, found that many of the samples contained radiation levels that would be 242 times higher than the federal safety limit for drinking water.
Because Ohio does not have laws prohibiting the disposal of other states' hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," waste, Ohio accepts a significant amount of fracking waste from out of state.
Last year, 54 percent of the 12.5 million barrels of brine disposed of in Ohio were from out of state, with quite a bit coming from Pennsylvania, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
However, Terry Fleming, the executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council, said he thinks comparing the radiation in the brine to that legally found in drinking water is very misleading.
"This waste water never touches drinking water," said Fleming.
At a glance
Study by the U.S. Geological Survey found high levels of radiation in hydraulic fracturing wastewater.
This radioactive wastewater, also called brine, could eventually makes its way into Ohio injection wells.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources maintains the brine does not pose a risk because of Ohio's strict standards of monitoring the brine and the integrity of the wells holding the brine.
There are no laws preventing local municipalities from using the brine to control dust and ice on local roadways.
And while the ODNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in agreement that disposing of the fracking byproduct in deep well injection sites is by far the safest means of disposal, some local citizens still believe there are ways the potentially radioactive brine could contaminate ground water and soil.
"If you live in a township or county, they can decide at that level to use brine to clear roads. They can call it dust maintenance," said Elisa Young, an Athens county resident and a board member of the Buckeye Forrest Council who now works independently researching and disseminating information about fracking and related environmental issues.
Ohio does allow counties and township to use brine if they go through a paperwork process, said Washington County Engineer Bob Badger.
However, the county has not used brine on the roadways in Badger's 12-year tenure as county engineer.
"Some of the townships used it a little quite a while ago, but it just is not done in this county anymore," said Badger.
Another concern is the possibility of structural issues at the disposal sites, said Young.
"Without mechanical integrity testing, we don't know that these wells have not been cracked or damaged," said Young.
Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group member Betsy Cook, of Lowell, said she also worries that there are no means of monitoring the brine once it's injected.
"Once it's in the ground we have absolutely no idea where it's going. Every crack every cavity, every rock absorbs it," said Cook.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which oversees Class 2 injection wells, the only wells that can legally accept the brine, more than exceeds the federal testing standards, said Hetzel-Evans.
Federal standards require that every Class 2 well undergo a mechanical integrity test at least once every five years. The ODNR received primacy in 1983, meaning it has the ability to set its own statewide standards, but those standards have to meet or exceed the federal guidelines, said Hetzel-Evans.
The ODNR currently performs mechanical integrity tests on its 178 active injection wells once every 11 to 12 weeks, said Tom Tomastik, the ODNR's head geologist for the underground injection control section.
Washington County houses 11 Class 2 injection wells, eight of which are actively accepting brine, said Hetzel-Evans.
"Ohio was already considered very stringent on these issues. The emergency rules have now made us the most comprehensive in the country," she said.
The emergency rules, which went into effect in July, give the ODNR more legal backing to order applicable testing on brine injection sites.
When the emergency rules expire in October, Ohio Senate Bill 315 will replace it. According the ODNR's website, the bill "establishes one of the nation's toughest regulatory frameworks for overseeing the new technologies that allow for the exploration of natural gas in deep shale rock formations."
"I think its really important that people realize how strong Ohio's guidelines are," said Hetzel-Evans.
Despite safety measures, some local Ohioans do not want to be the dumping ground for the potentially radioactive waste.
"I do not want to see all the radioactive waste coming in here," said Monroe County resident Ruth Partin, who along with her daughter Deborah makes informational DVDs on subjects concerning hydraulic fracturing.
The possibility of spills or accidents while the brine is being hauled is also a big concern for Partin.
And some residents entirely disagree with the claim that Ohio's laws concerning the brine are the most stringent.
"A big concern for me is that our state legislature and ODNR feel we do not need to test the brine coming into Ohio, whereas Pennsylvania and West Virginia require testing," said Cook.
If Ohio enacted legislature to require testing of the brine, companies would choose to dispose of it elsewhere, she said.
"The reason companies bring it here is because they do not want it to be tested because they know it is hazardous," said Cook.
The Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group will be holding a public forum on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. in Marietta College's McDonough Center to discuss Ohio's laws as they pertain to the oil and gas boom, said Cook.