Fracking in Eastern Ohio Leaves People Uninformed and Vulnerable

Fracking and oil drillingThe current boom in oil and gas drilling is not limited to Texas and North Dakota. Ohio has also seen an increase in drilling activity in recent years. In particular, the activity has focused on the Marcellus/Utica shale formations that spread under Ohio and the adjoining states of New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The growth in this industry has come at a price, and a battle that occurred in eastern Ohio this spring illustrates some of the issues raised by this growth.

The basic issue appears to be that the state, rather than local communities, controls oil and gas activity in Ohio. Cities and counties have been pushing back against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which received control over oil and gas drilling and injection wells in 2004 from the state Legislature. Local communities have been trying to reassert their authority ever since.

It's an uphill battle. Court decisions have denied localities a role in overseeing and regulating oil and gas activity. Monroe Falls, Broadview Heights and several counties were turned down when they tried to assert authority over oil and gas operations within their communities.

Communities are particularly concerned about the environmental and health effects of fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas by injecting a mix of chemicals and water into the rock under very high pressure. The issue is what happens to the chemical mixture after the rock breaks apart during the injection process and the oil or gas is extracted. Does it find its way into the groundwater to contaminate rivers, streams and drinking water after being injected back into the ground?

Even worse, in the minds of environmental activists, is that people have no way of knowing what is in the chemical mix. A report released last fall by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied eight oil- and gas-producing states. Ohio was the only state among the eight that did not require oil and gas companies to disclose the contents of waste from the fracking process. Oil and gas companies operating in California, Colorado, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas are all required to disclose the makeup of fracking waste before they can obtain disposal permits.

Ohio is not entirely to blame. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify oil and gas fracking waste as hazardous because it relies on the states to classify wastewater and regulate its disposal. By shifting the regulatory burden to the states, the EPA has essentially washed its hands of the issue. The result is that Ohio, along with the adjoining states of West Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania, is not required to implement rules and regulations about wastewater disposal that meet particular standards.

In addition to causing environmental contamination, the disposal of fracking waste has been linked to small earthquakes in areas that had not experienced earthquakes since record keeping began. The earthquakes, the largest of which registered a magnitude 3 on the Richter scale, resulted when fracking waste was injected into a previously unknown fault beneath a well. This earthquake, which occurred in Poland Township in eastern Ohio near Youngstown, was one of several that were felt in Mahoning County.

It is likely that there will be long-term health consequences to the lax oversight of fracking wastewater disposal. The chemicals from the wastewater could appear in wells, rivers and streams 10 or 20 years into the future. Moreover, because Ohio does not require the oil and gas companies to name the chemicals that go into the fracking fluid, it will be difficult to predict the illnesses and environmental damage that will inevitably occur. Although there are numerous grass-roots and citizens groups, as well as localities, advocating for change in the regulations, improvement may not come for some time. This means that the citizens of eastern Ohio, where fracking is common, are facing the future both vulnerable and uninformed through no fault of their own.