Deep injection wells have been scattered across American soil for over eighty years. Many of these wells are used to dispose of liquid wastes. Traditionally, while there have been some controversies, the practice of disposing of waste in deep injection wells has not garnered significant media attention. However, in many regions of the country, injection wells have become the preferred method for disposing of the liquid waste (primarily oil-field brine (saline)) produced during the hydraulic fracturing process. Not coincidentally, deep injection wells are now facing heightened media and regulatory scrutiny.

The EPA regulates the disposal of waste products in injection wells under its Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program. Under the UIC program, the EPA has authorized most states, including Ohio, to exercise primary regulatory and enforcement authority. States with primary regulatory and enforcement authority oversee the permitting and operation of injection wells, and in turn, the EPA oversees the states by periodically auditing state UIC programs. Ohio has had primacy over the UIC program since 1983.

Region 5 of the EPA—which covers six Midwestern states, including Ohio—stated in a May 17, 2013 (subscription required) letter to the Ohio Sierra Club that it will revise “its audit approach to be more transparent and to include more specific findings.” The “revisions” come in response to recent calls from environmentalists for a “full” audit of Ohio’s UIC program. In the letter, Tinka Hyde—Region 5’s Water Division Director—stated that Region 5 will apply the revised approach (subscription required) to an audit of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) UIC program scheduled to begin in August or September of this year.

Region 5’s UIC audits previously involved relatively general information about injection well activity, and environmentalists claim that this level of generality allowed the flaws in the ODNR’s program to avoid detection. Gathering more specific information likely will make the audit process more rigorous, and, therefore, more demanding on the states. This remains to be seen, however, as the EPA has declined to elaborate on how Region 5 will implement the revised audit process.

The heightened audit standards are just the most recent example of the increased regulatory and media scrutiny directed at injection wells in recent years. The disposal of oil field brine was identified as the primary cause of a series of earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio that began in March 2011. The State of Ohio concluded that the earthquakes were the result of the injection of oil-field brine in close proximity to a fault line and promptly revised its UIC program in response. The disposal practices of the oil and gas industry in Ohio again came under fire when reports surfaced that an oil and gas development company allegedly disposed of about 40,000 gallons of drilling waste into a Youngstown storm drain flowing into the Mahoning River. Environmentalists cited both of these issues, among others, in their letters (CHEJ letter and Ohio Sierra Club letter) to Region 5 of the EPA calling for more rigorous UIC audits. The letters also asked that the EPA rescind its delegation of primary enforcement authority to the State of Ohio and take over the administration of the UIC program in the State.

The scrutiny of Ohio’s UIC program is not likely to subside any time soon, as the amount of drilling waste disposed of in Ohio injection wells is on the rise. According to a recent report in the Akron Beacon Journal, Portage County is the top county in Ohio for waste injections, with over 2.3 million barrels of waste injected in 2012. That figure is up 18.7 percent from 2011. Other top counties include: Washington (2 million barrels); Trumbull (1.4 million barrels); and Ashtabula (1.4 million barrels). In total, 14.2 million barrels of drilling waste were injected in Ohio in 2012. That figure is up 12 percent from 12.6 million barrels in 2011. Injections have declined by 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, but environmentalists are still concerned. They predict that “huge growth [in waste injection] could be ahead as an infrastructure of pipelines and processing plants is put in place [in Ohio]….”

Pressure and scrutiny from environmentalists has already impacted injection well operators, and the impact will likely continue into the future. If the EPA follows through on its promise to more closely examine Ohio’s UIC program, then Ohio injection well operators could face even more stringent regulation in the future. The North America Shale Blog will continue to follow and report on this issue as it develops.