Photo Caption: Demonstrators protest against injection wells at a site near Albany last year.
Two groups that oppose new injection wells in Athens County for wastewater from oil-and-gas drilling have criticized the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, for holding an "open house" to discuss a proposed new well in Rome Township, rather than a true public hearing.
ODNR has scheduled the open house for 6 p.m. Wednesday, at its Division of Wildlife offices at 360 E. State St.
At the event, ODNR officials will present information about an injection well for which the D.T. Atha company is seeking a permit. The well, if approved, would be located near the eastern border of Rome Township with Washington County, near Ohio Rt. 144 north of Frost, and would accept the chemical-laced brine that's used to fracture shale beds in some oil-and-gas drilling operations.
The Atha well is the only pending permit application for a Class II injection well in Athens County. Another new well, to be located in the Coolville area, got its permit approved earlier this month.
Critics of injection wells have argued that the open house format, in which various informational booths are made available to the public, is inferior to the public hearing format, in which citizens can stand up and voice their opinions to state officials and the rest of the crowd in attendance. (ODNR still takes written comments even under the open house approach, however.)
In a news release, the Athens County Fracking Action Network and Appalachia Resist!, two groups opposed to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and to new injection wells to store the wastewater from such operations, slammed ODNR for not holding a genuine public hearing.
"An 'open house' is no substitute for a public hearing," the release maintains. "At a public hearing, residents bring their concerns publicly before ODNR and all assembled, speaking one at a time in an organized fashion so that every comment can be heard by all. Most importantly, at a public hearing, public comments are entered into the legal record and can thus help hold ODNR accountable to the public."
By contrast, the release alleges, at an open house citizens "are asked to mill around a large room, talking to various ODNR representatives in a casual one-on-one manner," and comments don't become part of legal record, "so ODNR cannot be held accountable to objections raised."
Local critics of fracking have argued that though federal legislation has declared fracking wastewater non-hazardous, in reality it is toxic.
"The fracking waste being dumped into these Class II wells contains highly toxic toluene, benzene, and other neurotoxic, carcinogenic, and radioactive substances that are regulated as hazardous for all other industries by the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and hazardous waste regulations," Nancy Pierce, a member of ACFAN, is quoted as saying in the release. "Ohio does not monitor drinking or groundwater around any Class II injection wells."
The state does not agree that injection wells pose a major hazard to water safety.
In an informational release sent to a member of ACFAN, ODNR maintains that according to the U.S. EPA, Class II injection wells "are the best way to ensure that surface or underground sources of drinking water are not contaminated by fluids produced from drilling, stimulation and production of oil and gas," and are a "tested, safe and well-regulated solution" to this problem.
Currently, the release says, inspectors from ODNR's Division of Oil and Gas Resource Management make surprise inspections of each injection well in Ohio, on average, once every 11-12 weeks. These inspections include pressure tests and checking for leaks.
ODNR rates it "extremely unlikely" that anyone's groundwater will be contaminated by a Class II injection well, noting that the underground "injection zones" are located far below water tables, and separated by "thousands of feet of impermeable rock."
Critics suggest, however, that there is a risk of contamination both through decay of casings that surround the injection tubes, and spillage at the surface.
ODNR notes that by law, Ohio's regulations of injection wells must be at least as stringent as the U.S. EPA's. As for surface accidents – spillage at a well site, for example, or a wastewater truck sliding into a river – ODNR states that surface facilities must be built to be able to store 100 percent of the maximum fluid volume the well can hold. The state also regulates over-the-road transport of potentially hazardous loads, it points out.
While admitting that "accidents do happen," the ODNR release adds, "the state's stringent regulations and enforcement will minimize the chances of that happening and maximize our ability to respond quickly and decisively if it does."
The ACFAN/Appalachia Resist! release, however, notes that the woman who owns the land on which the Atha well is proposed "does not want an injection well on her land," because, according to her attorney, she is afraid her drinking-water well will be contaminated. Property owner Malvena Frost, the release says, was among more than 100 Athens Countians who submitted comments to ODNR critical of the Atha well permit application.
With this much public interest being shown, the groups argue, "Ohio law requires that a public hearing be held," for which an "open house" is not an adequate replacement.
Some state agencies began doing away with the long-used public hearing method of collecting public input in the late '90s, in favor of "open house" meetings similar to the one planned Wednesday in Athens. Athens County's first exposure to the new format likely occurred during the Ohio Department of Transportation's planning stage for the U.S. Rt. 33 expansion project between Athens and Shade.