In Fracking Hotbed, a Muted Approach to Regulation
by Naveena Sadasivam ProPublica, May 13, 2014, 2:48 p.m.
Ohio annually processes thousands of tons of radioactive waste from hydraulic-fracturing, sending it through treatment facilities, injecting it into its old and unused gas wells and dumping it in landfills. Historically, the handling and disposal of that waste was barely regulated, with few requirements for how its potential contamination would be gauged, or how and where it could be transported and stored.
With the business of fracking waste only growing, legislators in 2013 had the chance to decide how best to monitor the state’s vast amounts of toxic material, much of it being trucked into Ohio from neighboring states.
But despite calls to require that the waste be rigorously tested for contamination, Gov. John Kasich and the state legislature signed off on measures that require just a fraction of the waste to be subjected to such oversight. The great majority of the byproducts creating during the drilling process 2013 the water and rock unearthed 2013 still do not have to be tested at all.
As well, the legislature, lobbied by the fracking industry, undid the governor’s bid to have the testing of the waste done by the state’s Department of Health 2014 the agency acknowledged by many to possess the most expertise with radioactive material. The testing is now the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees the permitting and inspection of oil and gas drilling sites, but that has no track record for dealing with radioactive waste.
The legislators acted with little in the way of public debate, and the new regulations they adopted appeared deep inside a 4,000-page state budget bill. As a result, both the measures first proposed by Kasich and those ultimately signed into law have infuriated environmentalists and residents with concerns about the risks of fracking in their state.
A ProPublica review of the legislature’s actions shows that just a handful of parties testified before the oversight committees charged with examining the pros and cons of the proposed regulations. And interviews with legislative staffers make clear that the final language of the regulations, including changes that scaled back two measures proposed by the governor, was inserted into the budget bill at the last minute.
And so today, to the surprise of much of the public as well as some elected officials, Ohio’s oversight of fracking waste remains much as it had been 2013 limited and controversial.
“It has the potential to leave a toxic legacy that could turn much of Ohio into potential superfund sites,” said Alison Auciello of the Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy organization.
Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said existing regulations made mandatory testing of fracking waste unnecessary and said his group had pushed to limit the Department of Health’s role because it would have created bureaucratic problems rather than effective monitoring.
The state’s oil and gas interests supports “regulation that directly enhances protection of the public interest while allowing industry to efficiently do its job,” he said. “We do not support regulation that is designed more to placate people or somehow make them feel better.”
Regulations for the disposal of fracking waste vary from state to state. In some, like Texas, regulation is virtually non-existent. But others have taken more aggressive measures to safeguard the public. For instance, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have agreed to identify and quantify, through formal testing, the radioactive threat and plan to adopt protections accordingly. Already, they have installed alarms in landfills to check if the contaminated waste being received violates the state limits already in place. And in West Virginia, legislators enacted a law requiring the construction of separate, lined pits for the storage of radioactive fracking waste.
Oil and gas drilling is big business in Ohio, responsible for tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investments by companies eager to mine the state’s natural resources. An economic study conducted by industry groups in 2011 forecasted that the business would add over 200,000 jobs in coming years. Kasich has declared Ohio an eager partner with the industry.
The environmental challenges produced by the industry in Ohio fall into two categories: the liquid waste created by hydraulic-fracturing, much of which is now stored by re-injecting it into the earth; and the solid waste that is now piling up in the state’s landfills.
The public in Ohio has become most knowledgeable and concerned about the handling of liquid waste. There has been growing concern that the fracking process has provoked earthquakes, creating cracks through which the radioactive water put back in the earth could contaminate the local groundwater.
State officials have said they are studying the threat of liquid waste, but the measures adopted in last year’s budget bill did next to nothing to address the potential threat.
There is little doubt among environmentalists and others concerned with safety that the debate over what to do with the fracking waste has been colored by the state’s interest in promoting the industry’s growth. Analysts and others say being able to easily dump waste within Ohio spares drilling operators one of their greatest expenses 2013 trucking the waste elsewhere.
Kasich’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the new regulations and how they came to be. Officials with the Ohio Senate majority caucus, which revised and ultimately pushed through the 2013 regulations, also would not comment.
Environmentalists in Ohio assert that no meaningful regulation of the industry can be achieved without real public debate, including input from researchers and scientists who have been studying the health risks of radioactive waste for years.
“When you let politics rule in the face of scientific determination, it’s an unconscionable position to take,” Julie Weatherington-Rice, an adjunct professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, said of the limited changes in regulatory oversight. “In the process of doing that they’ve put the population of Ohio at risk.”
Radioactive waste is produced at almost every step of the natural gas extraction process that has come to be known as fracking. This is true in part because the very shale formations that drillers are trying to access contain radioactive metals. As operators drill down to the gas reserves, they bring some of those metals back to the surface.
In some cases, the metals dissolve into the water used to frack the well, contaminating it. In other cases, the metals are present in the bits of rock and soil 2013 called drill cuttings 2013 that operators break up while drilling. In order to bring these cuttings back up to the surface and to keep the drilling machinery cool, operators use drilling mud, a viscous fluid with high levels of radium and a host of other radioactive elements.
None of this is new. Oil and gas fields have always produced radioactive waste. But the fracking boom has increased the intensity of drilling and, as a result, radioactive materials are being unearthed faster and in larger quantities. Also, operators are accessing newer shale reserves that the U.S. Geological Survey has found to produce higher levels of radium than conventional