Ohio investigation finds injection well caused quakes in Youngstown area

Gas drilling waste behind quakes

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were almost certainly induced by injection of gas-drilling wastewater into the earth, Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday as they announced a series of tough new regulations for drillers.

[ WEB EXTRAS: To view a map of the state's injection wells, click here: http:// on.wews.com/ w4WoCc]

The state will impose tough new brine disposal regulations as a result .  

Among the new regulations: Well operators must submit more comprehensive geological data when requesting a drill site, and the chemical makeup of all drilling wastewater must be tracked electronically.

The state Department of Natural Resources announced the tough new brine injection regulations because of the report's findings on the well in Youngstown, which it said were based on "a number of coincidental circumstances."

For one, investigators said, the well began operations just three months ahead of the first quake.

They also noted that the seismic activity was clustered around the well bore, and reported that a fault has since been identified in the Precambrian basement rock where water was being injected.

"Geologists believe it is very difficult for all conditions to be met to induce seismic events," the report states. "In fact, all the evidence indicates that properly located ... injection wells will not cause earthquakes."

Northeastern Ohio and large parts of adjacent states sit atop the Marcellus Shale geological formation, which contains vast reserves of natural gas that energy companies are rushing to drill using a process known as hydraulic fracturing.

That process involves freeing the gas by injecting water into the earth, but that water needs to be disposed of when companies are done with it. Municipal water treatment plants aren't designed to remove some of the contaminants found in the wastewater, including radioactive elements. A common practice is to re-inject it into the ground, a practice banned in some states.

The improper placement of the Youngstown well stemmed in part from inadequate geological data being available to regulators, the report states. New rules would require a complete roll of geophysical logs to be submitted to the state.

"These logs were not available to inform regulators of the possible issues in geologic formations prior to well operation," the document says.

Requiring well operators to submit more comprehensive geologic data is just one of the added regulations the department will either impose immediately or pursue through legislative or rule changes.

Among other changes:

  • Future injection into Precambrian rock will be banned, and existing wells penetrating the formation will be plugged.
  • State-of-the-art pressure and volume monitoring will be required, including automatic shut-off systems.
  • Electronic tracking systems will be required that identify the makeup of all drilling wastewater fluids entering the state.

"Ohio has developed a new set of regulatory standards that positions the state as a national leader in safe and environmentally responsible brine disposal," Natural Resources Director James Zehringer said in a prepared statement.

"Ohioans demand smart environmental safeguards that protect our environment and promote public health. These new standards accomplish that goal," he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Ohio regulatory authority over its deep well injection program in 1983, deeming that its state regulations met or exceeded federal standards. The new regulations would be added to those existing rules.

If you want to know how many injection wells are in your county, click here. If you want to see where the state's seismographs and injection wells are located, click here .

A dozen earthquakes shook northeast Ohio from March 2011 through New Year's Eve. The largest was magnitude 4.0.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation in February found some earthquakes in Youngstown may have been prevented.

"I think more monitoring could have been done," said John Armbruster, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, who has studied earthquakes for more than 40 years.

Armbruster said more thorough tracking of Ohio's seismic activity would have alerted officials that a new injection well was triggering earthquakes in the area. Earthquakes eventually subsided after high-pressure fluid injections into a well were halted, according to Armbruster.

"If more seismographs had been taken to Youngstown three months after this well started operating, we could have seen what was happening," Armbruster said. "If this well had been shut down nine months earlier, maybe the earthquakes associated with this well would be all over now."

Read the rest of her report

at  on.wews.com/yAqOcC

Following the release of this investigation Friday, D & L Energy group released this statement:

"D & L Energy Group, an energy exploration and production company with headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio, makes the following observations on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' (ODNR) latest news release outlining a preliminary report on seismic activity in Youngstown.

• ODNR makes its preliminary conclusions without conducting any testing at the Northstar No. 1 well site. The agency appears satisfied to base it conclusions on the limited scientific data available from outside sources.

• D & L prepared, drilled and is now the operating manager of the Northstar No.1 injection well in full compliance with ODNR permits and supervision. Everything done at the Northstar No. 1 well site was done with ODNR knowledge and approval. These statements apply to all other injection wells D & L either currently operates or has in development.

• While ODNR repudiates drilling into the Precambrian formation now, the agency permitted D & L to do so in the case of the Northstar No. 1 well and then used this site to collect geological information. The current preliminary report does not indicate ODNR accepts any responsibility for its decision.

• D & L has been in constant contact with ODNR regarding extensive testing the agency asked us to conduct to investigate any possible connections between seismic activity and the Northstar No. 1 well (sometimes referred to as the Ohio Works well in previous releases).

• The D & L research project will provide scientifically sound data in excess of what is available now. It is unfortunate ODNR pre-empted a thorough search for information, opting instead for a politically expedient preliminary report that sacrifices true understanding for haste.

• Given the costs of new research, which could reach as high as $1 million and will be borne by D & L and not the state nor the taxpayers, we ask why ODNR asked us to do the work if the agency had no interest in the results.

• D & L reminds ODNR and the community that the Northstar No. 1 well is currently inactive. It is not accepting water for injections. Given this idle status, there is no reason to rush and accept bad or incomplete science.

• D & L has no immediate reaction to the proposed changes in injection well regulations except to state the company has always been an environmentally responsible and legally operating energy producer that voluntarily implements industry best practices that exceed current laws and regulations.

D & L intends to continue with its study pending ODNR approval In fact, today's report comes as a surprise as D & L and ODNR has a meeting scheduled in Columbus later this month to discuss the D & L study proposal. D & L calls on ODNR to let science guide its regulatory actions and to remain open to the data they requested in the first place."

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