The Ohio River valley is lush in the spring. The eastern Ohio River, one of America’s most economically vital waterways, winds through the rolling green foothills of Appalachia as it ambles past small towns and cities in Ohio and West Virginia. The valley has been heavily industrialized for decades. Coal-burning power plants, chemical processing facilities and mills dot the riverside. In 2012, the Ohio River was ranked the nation’s most polluted waterway, according to government data compiled by Environment America. Elisa Young is determined to keep the river from getting worse.
Young, an activist living in southeast Ohio, sits in a car outside a fracking wastewater transfer station nestled in the center of a residential neighborhood on the riverside in New Matamoras, Ohio. Trucks laden with liquid waste from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” oil-and-gas drilling operations pull out of the parking lot one by one. The trucks are bound for injection wells, where the wastewater will be pumped deep beneath the earth for permanent disposal.
The Ohio River is easily visible behind the transfer station. For the facility’s operator, Texas-based GreenHunter Energy, the location is perfect. The firm was one of the first to propose transporting fracking wastewater on the Ohio River by barge. GreenHunter Energy wants to turn the New Matamoras facility, along with another property upriver near Wheeling, West Virginia, into waste terminals, where barges carrying up to 4.5 million gallons of waste could unload their cargo. The proposal has sparked national headlines and currently awaits federal approval.
Ohio has become a dumping ground for the fracking industry that has boomed in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and, most recently, eastern Ohio. Records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) show that Ohio’s 179 underground disposal wells have absorbed more than 1 billion gallons of fracking wastewater since 2010, with much of the waste coming from Pennsylvania and other states.
Oil and gas drilling produces millions of gallons of salty wastewater – known as “brine” in industry lingo – often laced with harmful chemicals and radioactive material from deep underground. Wastewater from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation, a hotspot for gas drilling, can be particularly radioactive. A 2011 study by the US Geological Survey found that the level of radioactive radium in a brine sample from Pennsylvania was 300 times higher than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s limit for industrial discharges.
Young looks out on the streets lined with houses on either side of the GreenHunter Energy waste transfer station. She recently discovered that another firm, Weavertown Environmental, is seeking permits to build a fracking waste solidification facility next to GreenHunter Energy’s wastewater station. The Weavertown proposal has drawn concerns from local residents, according to reports.
Young is concerned about the people living there. Who would want to live in the shadow of a waste depot? “It’s amazing,” she says. “There is no public input.” Young, who discovered the barging proposal on GreenHunter Energy’s web site, says state regulators did not issue any public notices or permits for the facility because the fracking wastewater is only stored there temporarily.
Young is also worried about a spill. The Ohio River supplies drinking water for millions of people. GreenHunter Energy argues that barges have much safer track records and fewer environmental impacts than trucks, but Young fears a barge accident could release much more waste into the water supply than a leaking truck. She is not alone.
“I don’t think the people of Ohio should have to choose what they like better, truck accidents or barge accidents,” says Madeline ffitch, (who spells her name with a lowercase “f”), an organizer with the Ohio-based anti-fracking group Appalachia Resist!. “Its funny, the industry is tying itself in knots because the consequences of even one barge leak are much bigger than a truck accident because the Ohio river is a primary drinking source for 5 million people.”
On February 19, Appalachia Resist! brought dozens of demonstrators to the GreenHunter Energy terminal to shut down the facility and protest the barging proposal. One demonstrator, Nate Ebert of Athens, Ohio, ascended a 30-foot pole anchored to a truck in the process of unloading waste fluid, preventing other trucks from entering the site for six hours. Ebert and 10 others were arrested as police broke up the protest.
After the protest, GreenHunter Energy released a statement claiming its facility was “held hostage by protesters,” but the facility did not suffer damage. GreenHunter Energy President Jonathan Hoopes tells Truthout that the protest was “dangerous,” and his employees were scared.
“It’s unfortunate that people have to resort to terrorist tactics,” Hoopes says.
According to ffitch, demonstrators did not terrorize anyone and even brought donuts into the facility’s office for employees to eat while they waited for the demonstration to end. Perhaps, she says, the employees were intimidated by the HAZMAT suits worn by demonstrators to highlight that fracking wastewater can be radioactive. “You think donuts are scary?” ffitch says. “You know what is scary? Millions of gallons of radioactive waste.”
Ohio’s Dumping Ground Controversy
Ohio has more injections wells for oil and gas drilling waste than other states in the region – and, according to environmentalists, a business-friendly regulatory atmosphere – making the state a popular destination for fracking waste from nearby states.
In 2011, Ohio’s injection wells absorbed 532 million gallons of fracking waste fluids, up from 359 million in 2010 and more than any year before that, according to state records. The Center for Health and Environmental Justice reports that Ohio injection wells accepted an all-time high of 581 million gallons of waste in 2012.
More than half of the 144 million gallons of waste injected into Ohio wells in the first four months of 2012 came from Pennsylvania and other states, according to records from the state Department of Natural Resources. ODNR regulates wastewater injection and charges higher fees for out-of-state waste. In the first quarter of 2012, the ODNR grossed $76,068 in fees on in-state waste disposal and $379,165 on waste from Pennsylvania and beyond.
The influx of waste has already caused problems. In the spring of 2012, state regulators linked an injection well near Youngstown to a dozen minor earthquakes including on 4.0-magnitude quake felt for miles. Last year, a Truthout investigation found that the ODNR permitted the injection well’s operator, D&L Energy, to raise the maximum injection pressure of the well twice, once shortly before and once again after the well caused two initial earthquakes on March 17, 2011.
D&L continued to operate in Ohio until February 2013, when owner Ben Lupo admitted to ordering employees on at least six occasions to empty 21,000-gallon tanks of fracking waste containing toxic chemicals into tributaries of the Mahoning River near Youngstown. Investigators say that as many as 20 illegal dumps were performed under Lupo’s watch. In February, Lupo plead not guilty in federal court to felony charges under the Clean Water Act, and state regulators revoked operating permits for D&L and related firms owned by Lupo.
There is little federal oversight of fracking waste injection in Ohio. The ODNR is the primary regulator of drilling wastewater disposal and claims to have one of the sturdiest programs in the country. But on March 14, in the wake of the Lupo dumps, hundreds of Ohioans petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to audit the ODNR’s injection well program and consider taking over regulatory responsibilities in the state.
On May 1, two Democratic Ohio lawmakers introduced legislation that would ban new injection wells in Ohio.
“These wells are changing the earth’s geology by adding man-made cracks that allow water and waste to flow freely,” said Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Democrat from Cincinnati and sponsor of the ban, in a release. “We cannot sit idly by as our state is used as a dumping ground for toxic waste and Ohioans’ health and safety are increasingly put at risk.”
The legislation is supported by dozens of environmental and community groups, but it remains to be seen if it will gain any traction in the state legislature.
Ohio’s Fracking Waste Dilemma
Ohio is prevented from stopping shipments of fracking waste from other states under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government authority over interstate commerce. So if the waste is bound for Ohio, why not bring it in as safely as possible?
GreenHunter Energy’s Jonathan Hoopes says barging is safer and more environmentally friendly than trucking the liquid in tanks. Unlike a fleet of trucks, a barge does not wear down local roads and cause traffic congestion. Barges also produce less carbon dioxide emissions per ton of waste transported. A study conducted by GreenHunter shows that barges also have the lowest rate of accidents compared to other modes of surface transportation. “The fluid is already coming in, it’s coming in by truck,” Hoopes says. “Our argument is to bring it in by barge because it’s a lot safer to do it that way.”
But environmentalists in Ohio are not happy about any excuse to bring more waste into the state.
“That’s the position the industry takes when it comes to Ohio . . . and it makes you feel like you’re living in a Banana Republic,” says Julie Weatherinton-Rice, a senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants and an adjunct professor at Ohio State University. “So he unloads [the barges] here in Washington County, and then what happens? He puts it in a truck.”
Weatherinton-Rice says hazardous materials are already barged on the Ohio River, but that doesn’t mean Ohioans should be happy about another potential source of contamination on an already polluted waterway. “I’m not against fracking,” she says. “I am against stupid.” The aquifer under the river is porous, she says, and a spill of fracking waste or any other pollutant could contaminate drinking water well fields near the river.
Weatherinton-Rice is also concerned about the amount of fracking fluid injected underground in Ohio. The fees collected by state regulators are “peanuts” compared with the price of fixing a contaminated drinking water well field, she says. “Ohio does not have magic geology that just swallows all this stuff without belching it back every once in a while,” she says. “So I go into these things expecting trouble and thinking about how we’re going to handle this if we do [have trouble].”
Elisa Young is also unconvinced. “They’ve never done anything like this before,” Young says. “Without doing an environmental impact statement, how do you know it will have less impact?” In March, Young petitioned the Coast Guard demanding that a formal environmental impact study be conducted on the GreenHunter Energy facility and its barging proposal, but she has yet to get a reply.
The proposal to barge the fracking waste on the river landed in the lap of the Coast Guard earlier this year, where Young says her requests for information and transparency also fell on deaf ears. The Coast Guard has since sent a proposal to the White House’s Office of Budget and Management (OMB), where it currently awaits approval. An OMB spokesman told Truthout in an email that the office does not comment on pending regulatory rules, and the Coast Guard did not respond to a Truthout inquiry.
So what about the people of New Matamoras, Ohio who live by the waste transfer facility? Madelin ffitch says that several residents came out to support the Appalachia Resist! protest, and some even let demonstrators stand on their lawns. But when Truthout went door to door in the neighborhood by the facility, no one wanted to talk to the media about the waste terminal. One local woman, who did not give her name, simply said, “What are you going to do? These businesses come in and do whatever they want.”