Access to reliable data is crucial to our understanding of risky fracking waste disposal, and in turn, our ability to protect public health. But when it comes to oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania, despite monitoring by two separate agencies, we are left with an incomplete and inaccurate account.
If we were to emulate the Charles Dickens classic, this article might begin, “It was the best of datasets, it was the worst of datasets.” Unfortunately, even that would be too generous when it comes to describing available data around oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania. To fully understand the legacy and current state of these wells, it is necessary to query the two agencies that have a role in overseeing them, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Given the relatively small inventory of these wells compared to other oil and gas producing states, the problems with the two datasets are enormous. Before jumping into these issues, however, it would be useful to review the nature of these wells, why there are two regulatory agencies involved, and why there are so few of them in Pennsylvania in the first place, relatively speaking.
Disposal Wells Categories
To further our industrial exploits of the planet, humans have found it useful to inject all kinds of things into the earth. In the United States, this ultimately falls under the jurisdiction of EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, and the point of injection is known as an injection well. Altogether, there are six classes of injection wells, with those related to oil and gas operations falling into Class II.
There are three categories of Class II injection wells, including waste disposal, enhanced recovery, and hydrocarbon storage. There is also an infamous exemption known as the “Haliburton Loophole,” which has allowed oil and gas companies to inject millions of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid into oil and gas wells in order to stimulate production without any federal oversight at all.
When most people speak of “injection wells” in an oil and gas context, they are usually referring to waste disposal wells, and this is our focus here. This well type is also referred to as Class II-D (disposal) and salt water disposal wells (SWD). This latter term is used by a majority of state regulators, so we will use that abbreviation here, even though considering this type of toxic and radioactive fluid “salt water” is surely one of the industry’s most egregious euphemisms.
Dealing with Dangerous Fluids
There are two main types of liquid waste that are disposed of at SWD injection wells. As always, these waste types have a number of different names to keep everyone on their toes but for the sake of simplicity will call them “flowback” and “brine,” and both are problematic materials to handle. Additionally, the very act of industrial-scale fluid injection presents problems in its own right.
As mentioned above, when operators pump a toxic stew of water, sand, and chemicals into a well to stimulate oil and gas production, that mixture is known as hydraulic fracturing fluid, or fracking fluid. Some of these chemicals are so secretive that even the operators of the well don’t know what is included in the mix, let alone nearby residents or first responders in the event of an incident.
Between 10% and 100% of this fluid will return to the surface, and is then known as flowback fluid, becoming a waste stream. In Pennsylvania, the average amount of fracking fluid injected into production wells exceeds 10 million gallons in recent years according to data from the industry’s self-reporting registry known as FracFocus. With more than 12,000 of these wells drilled statewide, disposing of this waste stream becomes an enormous concern.
In addition to flowback fluid, there are pockets of ancient fluids encountered by the drilling and fracking processes that return to surface as well. These solutions are commonly referred to as brine due to their extremely high salt content, although this is not the type of fluid that you’d want to baste a Thanksgiving turkey with. Total salt concentrations can reach up to 343 grams per liter, roughly ten times the salt concentration of sea water. These brines include but are not limited to the familiar sodium chloride that we use to season our food, but include other components as well, including significant bromide and radium concentrations.
When Pennsylvania experimented with our public health by authorizing disposal of these fracking brines in municipal plants designed to treat sewer sludge, the bromides in that drilling waste stream became problematic as they interacted with disinfectants to cause a cancerous class of chemicals known as trihalomethanes. This ended the practice of surface “treatment” from these sites into streams in 2011, and along the way caused many water authorities to switch from chlorine to chloramine disinfectant processes. This, in turn, may have exacerbated lead exposure issues in the region, as the water disinfected with chloramine often eats away at the calcium scale deposits covering lead pipes and solder in the region’s older homes.
Figure 1. Radium-226 Decay Chain. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology
Marcellus and Utica wastewater are also very high in a radioactive isotope of radium known as Ra-226, which has a half-life of 1600 years. After that amount of time, half of the present radium will have emitted an alpha particle, which can cause mutations in strands of DNA when introduced inside the body, through contaminated drinking water, for example. After the hazardous expulsion of the alpha particle, the result become radon gas, which is estimated to cause 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year in the United States. Further down the decay chain is Polonium 210, which was infamously used in the assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
None of this should be injected into formations beneath people’s homes, near drinking water supplies, streams, or really anywhere that we aren’t comfortable sacrificing for the next few thousand years.
Figure 2. Earthquakes in California and Oklahoma by year. Source: United States Geological Survey
On top of all the problems with the water chemistry of both produced water and brine, the very act of injecting these fluids into the ground has triggered a large number of earthquakes in areas with frequent or large volumes of waste injection. This human-caused phenomenon is known as induced seismicity. The most well-known example of this is the previously stable state of Oklahoma which surged to have more magnitude 3.0+ earthquakes than California for a number of years during a drilling boom in that region. The largest of these was the magnitude 5.8 Pawnee earthquake in 2016.
Figure 3. PA Earthquakes and Potential Causes: 1/2000 – 2/2021, Magnitude 2.0 or Greater. Most earthquakes in the eastern portion of the state are associated with Quaternary faults. In the western portion, the causes are less straightforward, and include zipper fracking, mine blasting or collapse, and faults that are more ancient and deeper than the Quaternary faults, many of which remain unmapped. As the use of SWD wells increases, seismic activity may increase as well.
Manmade earthquakes are not limited to Oklahoma. For example, there were approximately 130 seismic events in one year period in the Youngstown, Ohio area due to SWD activity, including one measuring 4.0 on the last day of 2011. Over the years, the regulatory reaction to induced earthquakes seems to walking along the slippery slope from “that can’t happen” to “that can’t happen here” to “they’re all small earthquakes” to “we can mitigate the impact,” despite all evidence to the contrary.
So who gets to be in charge of this dumpster fire? As mentioned above, this is ultimately under the umbrella of EPA’s Underground Injection Control program. However, they have a complicated arrangement with the various states defining who has primary enforcement authority for this type of well.
In Pennsylvania, such wells must obtain a permit from EPA before obtaining a second permit from DEP. In a 2017 hearing in Plum Borough, Allegheny County, furious residents concerned with a variety of issues with a proposed SWD well were told that in Pennsylvania, EPA could only consider whether or not the well would violate the 1972 Clean Water Act when considering the permit, and that the correct audience for everything else would be DEP. Both permits for this well that is near and undear to me were ultimately issued, and operations are expected to begin in the next month if Governor Wolf does not instruct the DEP to reconsider their permit.
There is some precedent for overturning such a permit. In March of 2020, DEP yanked a permit for a SWD well in Grant Township, Indiana County, suddenly respecting a home-rule charter law that the agency had previously sued the Township over.
Without the prospect of royalties or impact fees, no community wants these wells and regulators know that they are nothing but problems. However, the reality is that the regulators oversee an industry that produces a tsunami of this toxic waste – more than 61.8 million barrels of it from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020 according to self-reported data, which is almost 2.6 billion gallons of the stuff, or slightly more than the capacity of Beaverdam Run Reservoir in Cambria County, a 382 acre lake with an average depth of 20 feet.
Nationally, injection wells are quite common, with over 740,000 such wells in the EPA inventory for 2018 and Class II (O&G) wells represent about a quarter of this figure. Of these Class II injection wells, roughly 20% are for fluid disposal, giving us an estimated 37,000 SWD wells nationwide. This number is expected to go up, as more than three-quarters of the 8,600 permits issued in 2018 were for oil and gas purposes.
However, in Pennsylvania, there have been quite few of these, compared to other states. The primary reason for this is its geology, which has largely been considered unsuitable for this type of activity. For example, a 2009 industry analysis states:
“The disposal of flowback and produced water is an evolving process in the Appalachians. The volumes of water that are being produced as flowback water are likely to require a number of options for disposal that may include municipal or industrial water treatment facilities (primarily in Pennsylvania), Class II injection wells [SWDs], and on-site recycling for use in subsequent fracturing jobs. In most shale gas plays, underground injection has historically been preferred. In the Marcellus play, this option is expected to be limited, as there are few areas where suitable injection zones are available.”
I discussed this topic in a phone call with an official from EPA, who largely confirmed this point of view, but preferred the phrase, “the geology is complicated” instead of the word “unsuitable.” When the UIC program was established from the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, there were only seven such wells in operation, and according to EPA’s data, there were still just 11 active SWD wells in the Commonwealth but with more on the way. I was cautioned that the geology wasn’t the only reason, however. Neighboring Ohio had hundreds of these wells, many of which are clustered close to the border with Pennsylvania. The two states have different primacy and permitting arrangements, which is a factor as well.
I have not come across sources mentioning why Pennsylvania’s geology was so unsuitable – or complicated, if we are being generous. However, there are numerous widespread issues that could be a factor, including voids created by karst and legacy coal mines, and formations that might have otherwise trapped gasses and fluids being punctured with up to 760,000 mostly unplugged oil and gas wells and more than one million drinking water wells.
Even when these fluids have been pumped deep underground, they are not necessarily out of sight and out of mind. For example, an abandoned well in Noble County Ohio suddenly began spewing gas field brine just a few weeks ago, resulting in a fish kill in a nearby stream. The incident is believed to be related to SWD wells in the general vicinity even though the closest of these is miles away from the toxic geyser. The waste fluids injected beneath the surface will exploit any pathway available through crumbling or porous rocks to alleviate the pressure built up from the injection process. These fluids don’t care whether the target is an old gas well, mine void, or drinking water aquifer.
Of course, we could ask the question in reverse, and ask what makes the injection of oil and gas fluids suitable in other locations, and the aggregated evidence would lead us to “nothing” as our answer. Nothing, other than the fact that drilling and fracking produces billions of gallons of liquid waste, and that it has to go somewhere.
Although EPA play a major role in permitting and regulating SWD wells in Pennsylvania, they do not publish data related to these wells on their website. FracTracker started hearing rumors about a spate of new SWD permits all over the state that were not accounted for in DEP data. As it turns out, many of these turned out to be other oil and gas wastewater processing facilities, and the public’s confusion about these is completely understandable because these facilities lacked the proper public notice process. These facilities are concerning in their own right – and residents of Pennsylvania should look here to see if one of these 49 facilities are in their neighborhoods – but these are not disposal wells.
To clear up the confusion, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to EPA for a spreadsheet of their Class II injection wells in Pennsylvania. This was apparently an onerous task that would require more than ten hours of labor on their behalf. When I mentioned that I was mostly interested in disposal wells, that sped the process up considerably.
Ultimately, I received a portion of the data fields that I had asked for.
|Well API Number||Yes|
|Class II Category (disposal, recovery, storage)||No|
|Date application received||No|
|Application status (e.g., pending, complete)||Yes|
|Application result (e.g., approved, rejected)||No|
|Application result date (date of EPA’s decision)||No|
|Well status (e.g., active, plugged)||Yes|
|Well county name||Yes|
|Well municipality name||No|
Table 1 – Summary of fields requested and received in FracTracker’s FOIA submission with EPA.
I started to compare the EPA dataset to DEP’s SWD well dataset, which is a part of its conventional well inventory. Each source had 23 records. We were off to a good start, but this data victory turned out to be limited in scope as the discrepancies between the two datasets continued to grow. Inconsistencies between the two datasets are as follows:
|County||DEP API||DEP Well Name||EPA API Match||EPA Name Match||Notes|
|Armstrong||005-21675||HARRY L DANDO 1||Y||Y|
|Beaver||007-20027||COLUMBIA GAS OF PENNA INC CGPA5||Y||Y|
|Bedford||009-20039||KENNETH A DIEHL D1||N||N||Not on EPA List|
|Cambria||021-20018||THE PEOPLES NATURAL GAS CO 4627X||N||N||Not on EPA list|
|Clearfield||033-27255||FRANK & SUSAN ZELMAN 1||N||Y||DEP / EPA API Number mismatch|
|033-27257||POVLIK 1||N||Y||No EPA API No.|
|033-00053||IRVIN A-19 FMLY FEE A 19||Y||Y|
|033-22059||SPENCER LAND CO 2||Y||Y|
|Elk||047-23835||FEE SENECA RESOURCES WARRANT 3771 38268||Y||Y|
|047-23885||FEE SENECA RESOURCES WARRANT 3771 38282||N||Y||DEP / EPA API Number mismatch|
|Erie||049-24388||NORBERT CROSS 2||Y||Y|
|049-20109||HAMMERMILL PLT 1||N||N||Not on EPA List|
|049-00013||HAMMERMILL 3||N||N||Not on EPA List|
|049-00012||HAMMERMILL 1||N||N||Not on EPA List|
|Greene||N||N||Not on DEP list. EPA Permit PAS2D210BGRE – no API to match|
|Indiana||063-31807||MARJORIE C YANITY 1025||Y||Y|
|063-20246||T H YUCKENBERG 1||Y||Y|
|Somerset||111-20059||W SHANKSVILLE SALT WATER DISP 1||Y||N|
|111-20006||MORRIS H CRITCHFIELD 1||Y||N|
|Potter||105-20473||H A HEINRICK RW-55||CA||Y||Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as Plugged OG Well (consistent w/ EPA status notes)|
|Warren||123-39874||BITTINGER 4||N||Y||API Mismatch (But does match Bittinger #1) Lat/Long match site name|
|123-33914||JOSEPH BITTINGER 1||N||Y||API Mismatch (But does match Bittinger #4) Lat matches site name, Long slightly off|
|123-33944||JOSEPH BITTINGER 2||Y||Y|
|123-33945||JOSEPH BITTINGER 3||CA||Y||Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as “Injection”|
|123-34843||SMITH/RAS UNIT 1||CA||Y||Category Anomaly – Not on DEP SWD list – does appear as “Observation”|
|123-22665||LEROY STODDARD & FRANK COFFA 1 WELL||N||N||Not on DEP list of all wells. Does appear on eFACTS. No location data|
Table 2 – Discrepancies between EPA and DEP data for SWD wells in PA.
Altogether, there was at least one data discrepancy on 17 out of 28 wells (61%) on the combined inventories, and this is allowing for significantly different formatting of the well’s name. The DEP list contained five records that were not on the EPA dataset at all, four records where the well’s API number did not match, three instances where the DEP well type was different from EPA’s listing, two wells with matching API numbers but different well names, two wells that were missing the API number on the EPA list, and one well that was on the EPA list that I have not been able to find in any of DEP’s inventories. These last two wells could not be mapped due to the lack of location data.
It isn’t always possible to know which dataset is erroneous, but the EPA list has several obvious omissions and one instance where the API number and well name are in the wrong columns. The quality of DEP data has improved over the years and appear to have some data controls in place to avoid some of these basic errors. For that reason, I suspect that most of the problems stem from the EPA dataset, and I have used DEP coordinates to map these wells.
Waste Disposal Wells in Pennsylvania
This map contains numerous layers that explore the current state of Class II-D Salt Water Disposal (SWD) injection wells for oil and gas waste in Pennsylvania. View the map “Details” tab below in the top left corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data.
View Full Sized Map | Updated 2/21
The Take Away
In the early 1970s, it was recognized that industrial injection of oil and gas waste underground could lead to risks to human health and the environment, so several major protective laws were put in place, including the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, and the Pennsylvania’s 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment. Decades later, it feels like the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency don’t take their regulatory responsibilities very seriously when it comes to oil and gas liquid waste disposal wells. While the state does have fewer of this type of well than other states, there are five that are currently under construction, according to the EPA dataset. Many of these, like the Sedat 3A well in Allegheny County, have come after significant community opposition, and many of the residents’ concerns have not been addressed by either agency.
There will undoubtedly be more of these disposal wells proposed in the near future. Residents would do well to hassle their municipalities to update their ordinances for this type of well if they happen to live in a place where such ordinances are possible. Solicitors should be instructed to regularly scour the Pennsylvania Bulletin and be in contact with EPA for the earliest possible notification of a proposed site, so that there is time to respond within the comment periods.
Additionally, the sloppiness of the datasets calls all sorts of questions into play regarding the co-regulation of these wells. In the case of an incident, it’s not even clear that both agencies have the information on hand to even locate the site in the field. Meanwhile, a 61% error rate between the sites name, API number, and status does not inspire confidence that agencies are keeping a close eye on these facilities, to say the least.
Above all, we must all realize that it isn’t safe to assume that someone will let us know when these types of facilities are proposed. Regulators have shown us through their actions that they are thinking far more about the billions of gallons of waste that needs to be disposed of than of the well-being of dozens or even hundreds of neighbors near each toxic dump site.
References & Where to Learn More
Data supporting this article, as well as the static map in Figure 3, can be found here.
FracTracker Pennsylvania articles, maps, and imagery: https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/pennsylvania/
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