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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Commentary

Enjoy Ohio’s natural beauty; here comes fracking to ruin it

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Go anywhere in Ohio to see what Mother Nature has wrought in gorgeous vistas, rolling hills, prairies, a Great Lake, abundant rivers, reservoirs, inviting trails, and camping respites. Enjoy it while you can.

A looming danger threatens the natural bounty: fracking for natural gas and oil in the eastern part of the state. Consider this your wake-up call.

The race is on to make big money in Marcellus Shale-rich Ohio. The state hung out a welcome sign for oil and gas drillers eager to make a fortune on deposits under Ohio.

Republican lawmakers who run the Statehouse are adamant about accommodating industry interests. No onerous regulations or taxes should burden oil and gas operations.

The GOP embraced shale drilling as Ohio’s economic salvation. Ohioans were promised infinite job creation from the untapped mineral wealth in their backyard.

But while we wait for the unemployment cure, courtesy of energy conglomerates, an ominous cloud drifts over the state. It floats beyond the five-county area invaded by fracking crews in eastern Ohio.

It’s a warning of what may come to the landscape we love. The hydraulic fracturing process, or “fracking,” also produces millions of barrels of polluted waste.

Millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are fired into deep shale formations to free trapped natural gas. The high-pressure fracturing subsequently creates millions of gallons of salty, briny waste more toxic than what was shot down the hole.

Some of the brine-water mix that bubbles up with the gas is contaminated with metals and radioactive materials. Occasionally, the wastewater is reused in other fracking operations.

But most is injected back underground in deep disposal wells. Because wastewater injection wells only dispose of the tainted fluids used in fracking, they can be placed anywhere — even miles from a drilling site. That’s a problem if you live in Ohio.

“Injection wells are kind of a net negative for Ohio,” said Jed Thorp, conservation program manager of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter. “We can think of no real positive to having waste injected into the ground all over the state.”

But it’s happening. The state is becoming a regional dumping ground for spent fracking fluids that nobody else wants. Along with trucks and equipment and drills rumbling into Ohio is a flow of imported fracking waste that threatens to turn into a flood.

Nearly 60 percent of shale-well waste injected into Ohio disposal wells last year — 8.16 million barrels — came from other states, such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York. From 2011 to 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, out-of-state wastes injected in Ohio increased by 19 percent.

More fracking waste that comes into the state means more disposal wells to be drilled. Ohio has 191 disposal wells now, up from 177 wells in January, 2012. Expect others to come to prime real estate near you.

“There are a couple of reasons why Ohio is an attractive place to bring this stuff,” Mr. Thorp told me. “Ohio happens to have a geology that lends itself favorably to the drilling of these injection wells, and it’s just cheaper to bring it [fracking waste] here,” he said.

By law, the state can’t make it more expensive for out-of-state waste without doing the same for similar waste generated in-state. That means there’s no political option in pro-drilling Ohio.

So neighboring states increasingly cart their fracking waste here. Solid radioactive material is routed to landfills here — like the ordinary waste it isn’t — and toxic wastewater is injected deep in the Earth, in a process the gas and oil industry says is environmentally safe.

Critics cite examples of injection wells around the country where concrete casings didn’t stop cracks from occurring or leakage from migrating into aquifers.

“It’s not worth rolling the dice on punching holes in the ground all over the state, drilling down through drinking water sources, and injecting chemicals that the industry itself acknowledges are radioactive,” Mr. Thorp said. “It’s stuff that’s too toxic to send even to a wastewater treatment plant.”

Ohioans who reap no real economic benefit from the shale and gas drilling may soon find themselves hosting waste injection wells with unknown poisons protected by trade-secret rules.

Is this a risk to our natural treasure we are willing to incur?

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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