Simply Living files comments on oil and gas waste disposal rules

Eight years ago, the Ohio legislature ordered the state’s Department of Natural Resources to come up with administrative rules for how waste from oil and gas facilities would be managed.

This is important because Ohio is a fracking state, and fracking produces millions of gallons of highly toxic and radioactive wastewater that is then disposed of in injection wells across the state. Fracking companies are not required to disclose what chemicals are in this waste, nor are there any rules for how they dispose of it.

This month, ODNR issued a set of draft rules for disposal of oil and gas waste. Simply Living is one of several environmental organizations that submitted public comments about these draft rules.

In short, while we are glad to see regulation of oil and gas waste disposal facilities finally moving forward, we believe the draft rules leave out critical considerations, are full of gaping loopholes, and need to be heavily strengthened in numerous areas before they can actually protect the health and safety of Ohioans and our environment.

Please see our full letter below, and thank you to Cheryl Johncox, Beyond Dirty Fossil Fuels Organizer for Sierra Club, for bringing this opportunity to comment to our attention.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management
2045 Morse Road, Building F-3 

Attn: Mark Bruce, Columbus, Ohio 43229-6693.

Dear Mr. Bruce,

I am submitting these comments on Interested Party Review – Oil and Gas Waste Facilities, on behalf of Simply Living, a Columbus nonprofit whose mission is to promote community sustainability, environmental awareness and our local economy. 

We have been extremely concerned for years that the state of Ohio has not issued any rules to protect the health and safety of Ohioans as well as the environment from the serious threat posed by toxic, radioactive oil and gas waste, and the processing of this waste in our community. These rules are long overdue, and we encourage the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to proceed with a formal rulemaking to establish much-needed regulations for oil and gas waste facilities in Ohio.

While we are pleased to see administrative rules being proposed, the draft rules don’t come anywhere near to what is required to protect public health and the environment, and to ensure accountability and compliance by oil and gas waste facility operators.

Here are some things the draft rules do not address:

Radioactivity levels: The draft rules require that only some types of radioactivity be tested and reported (TENORM), while other types of radioactivity will not be tested at all (NORM). The distinction between NORM and TENORM is irrelevant to human exposure to radioactivity, violating the principle that exposure to radiation should be as low as possible. 

Radiation plan: The draft rules do not require oil and gas waste facilities to have a radiation protection plan, even though it is well understood that oil and gas waste contains high levels of radioactivity.

Inspections: The draft rules do not require regular inspections of oil and gas waste facilities by ODNR staff, instead leaving inspections up to the oil and gas waste facility operator. This self-inspection is the fox guarding the henhouse. It provides no accountability and is unacceptable.

Cleanup: The draft rules do not require financial assurances and bonding requirements to ensure the resources for cleanup of an oil and gas facility once it is no longer operating. Without these requirements, taxpayers will end up footing the bill when the oil and gas industry shuts down these facilities and leaves behind a toxic mess. 

Decommissioning: The draft rules do not require the oil and gas industry to submit closure, reclamation, decommissioning, and site restoration plans to ODNR when they apply to open a waste facility. That information is only required when or after the facility shuts down. That’s too late, and will again leave taxpayers paying to clean up a toxic mess.

Protecting health: The draft rules do not protect our homes, schools, places of worship, other businesses or community gathering places from toxic oil and gas waste. Oil and gas waste facilities could be located just 1,000 feet away from a church, hotel, assembly hall, or school — and even this setback can be waived by the property owner, leaving renters and those visiting public and private buildings vulnerable. Compare this to the setback rules for a non-toxic wind turbine, which must be 1,125 feet from the nearest property line. The rules for toxic oil and gas facilities must at least match what we are requiring for wind turbines. 

Protecting water: The draft rules do not protect drinking water supplies, wetlands, lakes, rivers, and streams. Oil and gas waste facilities can be located just 100 feet from wetlands, surface waters, developed springs, and water wells. This fails to protect important water sources, including drinking water wells. This is completely unacceptable. Fracking waste has already gotten into our water supplies, and this does nothing to protect us.

Timeframes for action: The draft rules consistently leave ODNR with too little time to undertake the serious technical review required. The rules should not include timeframes under which ODNR must act, or if they do, these timeframes must be significantly expanded to ensure time for diligent review. 

The draft rules are also full of loopholes that benefit the oil and gas industry and undermine public health and safety, and environmental protections. Examples include:

Too much discretion: The draft rules give ODNR far too much discretion to waive certain requirements, such as what application materials will be submitted and what testing procedures and environmental protection plans must be provided and followed. The final rules should establish clear criteria for issuing permits for oil and gas waste facilities that cannot be waived by ODNR.

Public records exemption: The draft rules include a dangerous exemption from Ohio’s Public Records Law that would allow an oil and gas waste facility to label its documents as an infrastructure record and prevent public disclosure. We have already had problems in Ohio with accessing information about the dangerous chemicals in fracking fluid in cases of a well explosion or emergency. This exemption in the draft rules will prevent impacted communities from accessing information that is critical to understanding a facility’s impact on public health, drinking water sources, air quality, and the environment.

Reporting requirements: The draft rules require only annual reporting to ODNR, and even then some information, such as where waste originates, is only required if ODNR specifically asks for it. Reporting should take place at least quarterly, and should include information such as where waste originates and be publicly available. Pennsylvania tracks origin and final destination of oil and gas waste, and makes this information publicly accessible via a regularly-updated website. Ohio should do that too.

Groundwater monitoring: The draft rules should require that groundwater monitoring wells are installed when contamination is suspected and provide clear criteria for when contamination is suspected. Acting to prevent contamination of groundwater in case of a suspected leak should not be discretionary.

Temporary facilities: The draft rules allow for the operation of temporary oil and gas waste facilities for up to one year. That is too long to be considered temporary. A facility operating for this length of time should be required to go through the same permitting process as a permanent oil and gas waste facility.

Suspending operations: The draft rules should require that ODNR suspend operations at a permitted facility if the oil and gas waste facility (1) does not or is not likely to perform in a manner that supports safe production operations; (2) fails or could reasonably be anticipated to fail to protect public health and safety; (3) or causes or could reasonably be anticipated to cause damage to the environment.

The reason we need strong oversight of oil and gas waste facilities is exemplified by a recent leak from a pipe at the SOS D-2 injection well off Southgate Parkway in Cambridge. City officials were not even told about the leak until after city water department employees discovered an illegal dump site near the location of the injection well.

According to the Daily Jeffersonian, “Police reported it appeared tandem-wheeled commercial vehicles, potentially hauling unknown liquid material, have been illegally off-loading at the site. A four-inch quick connect coupler and two-inch rubber hose was found running from the edge of the parking lot over the hill into the creek bed at the bottom. At the bottom of the run several straw bales which found strategically placed to slow the flow of water as it was being discharged.”

In other words, it appears that Cambridge city officials discovered oil and gas waste being discharged directly into a creek, after they got no notice from the oil and gas industry about a leak at the nearby injection well. This is a horrific disregard for the environment and public health, and strong rules must be put into place to keep something like this from happening in other parts of the state. 

Thank you for your attention to our concerns about the draft rules for regulating how Ohio manages radioactive waste at oil and gas facilities. We hope you will substantially strengthen these rules so they actually protect the health and safety of Ohioans and our environment from this toxic waste. 

Respectfully submitted by,

Cathy Cowan Becker
Executive Director
Simply Living
752 High Street, Suite 2
Worthington, OH 43085
cathy@simplyliving.org

Image: Fracking well head after fracking equipment has been removed. Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia

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