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More Ohioans Want a Say in Drilling Waste Injection Sites

Judy Burger.jpeg
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Judy Burger stands next to her home in Belmont County, Ohio. Across the road two frack waste injection wells are being constructed. She fears noise and pollution from constant truck traffic.

Drilling for oil and gas brings up millions of gallons of wastewater. In Ohio, much of that waste is pumped into underground wells.

Some communities want a say when the state approves these injection wells.

After 25 years in their Belmont County, Ohio home, Judy Burger’s husband is getting ready to retire. But their mostly peaceful half acre is quickly changing. "I'm a nervous wreck," Burger said. "I have my blinds...closed in my house. So I don't have to look across the street to see the mayhem and the destruction and the coming reality."

Across the street, OMNI Energy of New Jersey is drilling two frack waste injection wells. The noise is loud, as Burger shares in a recording she made of the construction sounds. Once it's done, wastewater from oil and gas operations in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania will be trucked here.

According to a state transportation study, 48 trucks will enter and exit the site during peak hours in the mornings and afternoons to inject waste into the wells, waste that the US EPA says can be toxic and radioactive.

Burger doesn’t want to live here anymore, and she doubts anyone else would either. "It's beyond description, how horrible it is to feel like you're stuck," she said. "We were told we have no property value. Nobody would buy our property."

Considering the trade-offs
For years, many leaders in southeastern Ohio have lined up to support the oil and gas industry. They’ve seen some residents make good money from land leases and royalties, and find good-paying jobs,

But, like Judy Burger, some of those same leaders in Belmont County are now flummoxed by the lack of local control in siting the OMNI injection wells, and two others nearby by another company.

a photo of State Sen Frank Hoagland
Ohio Senate
State Sen. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction) says he wrote a letter opposing the OMNI Energy injection wells under construction in Belmont County.

"We've got the township trustees don't want it. We've got the county commissioners don't want it. We've got the state rep. don't want it. We've got the locals that don't want it," said State Sen. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction), who represents the area. "I myself put in a letter saying we don't need it there."

He wrote to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the oil and gas industry. The ODNR did not respond to requests for an interview. In an email, spokesperson Stephanie O’Grady said if an applicant can meet the terms and conditions to prevent risks to public health, safety and the environment, “The Chief shall issue the permit.”

In the case of OMNI Energy, local residents wrote letters to the ODNR with concerns about truck traffic, and idling, noise, and the proximity to homes and schools.

When the pandemic hit, the ODNR attempted to delay a decision until it could hold a public hearing in person. But OMNI sued. A public hearing is not required by law. And the Ohio Supreme Court sided with OMNI. The permits were approved late last year.

Waste wells abound in Ohio
An attorney for the company, Chris Gagin, says the drilling sound will subside after construction is completed. He says studies have shown that truck traffic will not be a problem, and the design of the wells will be what he calls “industry leading”, to prevent groundwater contamination and surface leaks.

Ed Mowrer, manager of the Energy Institute at nearby Belmont College, understands why nearby residents oppose the location. But he points out that energy development produces waste, and it has to go somewhere. "Disposal wells are a fact of the oil and gas industry," Mowrer said.

But nearly half the waste injected in Ohio disposal wells comes from out of state from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to a 2017 report. "So somewhere there was a decoupling of what's generated in Ohio and what Ohio is disposing of," said Ted Auch who is with the nonprofit Fractracker Alliance, "which means that we are more and more taking in a higher percentage of other people's stuff."

Auch says the well numbers tell the story. According to the ODNR, Ohio has 226 wells authorized to inject frack waste. Pennsylvania has 16. US EPA regulates injection wells in Pennsylvania. And Auch wants more federal oversight in Ohio.

But Sen. Hoagland does not want Ohio to give up its authority over injection wells to the federal government. "I'd much rather say, 'Hey, look, if we've got the state legislators, the local leadership to include the township leadership saying hell, no, we don't want this,' well, to me, that should be good enough."

Hoagland says he and other local leaders are looking at ways to change state law, so the ODNR can do more to work with local communities.

Julie Grant (Allegheny Front)