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Published: Friday, 11/30/2012

Safety first on wells

Ohio recently began issuing permits for injection wells for the first time since a series of earthquakes, including a magnitude 4.0 temblor, shook the Youngstown area nearly a year ago. New regulations are designed to prevent a recurrence, but Ohio’s headlong rush to reap oil profits remains troublesome.

Oil and gas companies and the federal government have been aware for more than half a century that injecting fluids deep underground at high pressure can cause earthquakes. A magnitude 3.6 earthquake linked to a waste-disposal well was recorded in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1987.

The proliferation of injection-well permits applications in Ohio is a direct result of the burgeoning oil and gas boom associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which creates millions of gallons of toxic wastewater that is disposed of by injecting it deep underground. Environmentalists fear leaks could contaminate underground reservoirs or surface water on which people depend.

Four permits for new Ohio wells were issued this month. Thirty-one more are in the pipeline. That’s in addition to the 179 existing wells used to store fracking wastewater.

Once they’re all approved, Portage County in northeast Ohio will be home to 25 injection wells, making it the toxic wastewater storage capital of Ohio. A group of 14 wells — half of them for disposal — is planned in the northeast corner of the county. Some will be only a few hundred feet apart, although experts don’t know what constitutes a safe distance between drilling sites.

During the 11-month permit hiatus, oil and gas companies worked with state officials to tighten regulations. The new regulations include the ability to order seismic testing before, during, or after a well is drilled. Whether the new rules are enough to safeguard Ohioans might not be known until it is too late.

Not everyone in Ohio is happy about the prospect of more wells, especially in Ohioans’ back yards. Mansfield residents don’t want them. Neither do people who live in Cincinnati, Niles, or Yellow Springs, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But they may not have a vote. According to Ohio law, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is the only permitting authority.

The oil and gas industry says the wells are safe. They point out that injection wells have been used for decades in Ohio without any groundwater contamination.

They also say the wells are temporary. They’ll be pumped out when technology is developed to treat the hazardous wastewater. But no one knows when that might be, if ever.

Despite industry assurances, many Ohioans are concerned that fracking rules are too heavily influenced by the desire to cash in on the oil and gas bonanza trapped in shale deposits beneath Ohio. They want to know that safeguards are in place before drilling begins. And they want to know what chemicals might eventually contaminate their water supply.

People here also want oil companies to pay a fair price for the privilege of getting rich from Ohio’s natural resources. That means a tax rate high enough to pay for potential environmental damage as well as reversing the damage of recent cuts in state aid to local governments and education — not more tax cuts.

Fracking rules need to reflect the reality that water, not oil, is Ohio’s most valuable resource.

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