Synopsis: Risks to the Greater
Columbus Water Supply from Oil and
Synopsis by Greg Pace, Treasurer of Columbus Community Rights Coalition
Columbus Community Rights Coalition (CCRC), an Ohio-based 501(c)(3) organization, will soon be publishing a white paper meant to inform resident stakeholders of risks to the water associated with oil & gas production activities occurring within their watershed region of Columbus, Ohio.
In the past few years, CCRC’s associated organization, Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR), a locally-registered, issue-based PAC, has met with local authorities to bring attention to the risks that oil & gas production, particularly waste disposal injection wells, pose to their public water system. This has included several meetings with Columbus City Council members, as well as meetings with the city’s Department of Water. The group held a series of injection well tours in Morrow County to show attendees the dilapidated condition of many of the active injection wells, located within the watershed and used to dispose of toxic and radioactive liquid oil & gas waste. Several Columbus City Council members and one state representative who reside in Central Ohio were among those who attended these tours. This paper is intended to encourage local officials to bolster protection initiatives regarding this particular waste stream in their watershed.
The paper offers perspective on the regulatory environment in Ohio that has been shaped to create Source Water Protection Areas (SWPA) with rules meant to keep public water resources safe. It also explains the components that make up the Columbus public water system, so that readers can understand the importance of how safety features work with the system to keep the water clean and safe.
Ohio Source Water and Oil, Gas, and Waste Wells
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This interactive map looks at the locations of source water, and oil, gas and waste wells in the state of Ohio.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
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Assessing Columbus Water Contamination
There is nothing new about oil & gas industry activity that occurs in the city’s Source Water Protection Area (SWPA) north of Columbus. Oil & gas wells have been drilled for a long time, especially since the oil & gas boom that began in the 1960’s. The paper offers some history of oil & gas operations in Ohio over the past century, and highlights how hundreds of thousands of undocumented wells are deemed to exist. Most are orphaned or abandoned, which leads to risks of contamination over time when they are not properly plugged. The shorter history of Class II salt water injection wells (SWIWs) used for oil & gas “brine” disposal has its own set of problems associated with incidents of water and wetland contamination in Ohio, and with how they are regulated by the state. This is of concern for Central Ohio residents who rely on public water as there are many legacy injection wells in their SWPA.
It has been known that oil & gas waste “brines” are laden with highly toxic content levels of salts, chemicals and heavy metals. What is new is that testing for radionuclides in oil & gas production waste in Ohio has been presented by Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division (ODNR DOGR) for the first time. The testing data shows that the amounts of stealthily toxic radium in these wastes are at levels multitudes higher than previously presented to the public. Many test samples showed levels that were up to 96 times higher than legal environmental discharge limits, and many more multiples higher than allowable drinking water standards created by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The paper cautions that the Columbus Water Department, although highly diligent in its protections to keep water safe, should take another look at how it assesses the water contamination risk specifically associated with the oil & gas production and injection wells in the watershed. The paper outlines ways to increase vigilance for this specific type of contamination, including:
- It is recommended that Columbus authorities demand that the emergency notification system for toxic releases include spill and leakage incidents in Columbus’s SWPA. As it stands, this region is not included in the notification network with agencies in Ohio. Shockingly, authorities are not allowed to notify water suppliers of chemicals released in spills from oil & gas facilities, which keeps public water users in the dark about what contaminants are present when incidents occur.
- The Columbus Source Protection Report by the Columbus Water Department should be more specific in outlining contamination risks from oil & gas production activities throughout the watershed by using information that is already available, including information on production wells, injection wells (SWIW’s), and areas of waste “brine” spreading on road surfaces for dust and ice control.
- Columbus should map distribution pipelines as well as the wells and areas outlined above, and it should also include routes of tanker vehicle travel for brine waste disposals.
- Columbus should enhance its own water monitoring specific to signs of oil & gas waste contamination, as there are no requirements for any agency in Ohio to do this.
- Discussions should be organized between local authorities and user/stakeholders to ascertain new risks to the SWPA when new facilities come into operation and when contamination events/incidents occur.
- Columbus authorities should demand follow-up remediation if leaks or contamination are detected within the SWPA. They should require that problems with wells, documented through Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division (ODNR DOGR) inspection reports, be remedied with definable and actionable resolutions, especially where well shutdown was required.
- Columbus authorities should maintain a database of incidents within the SWPA, that resulted in actual water contamination or risks of water contamination to the public water resources from oil & gas production facilities. There is a legacy of regional contamination incidents that should be part of the database.
- It is recommended that Columbus authorities approach Morrow and Delaware County officials to persuade them to stop the practice of spreading oil & gas “brines” on road surfaces for dust and ice control that are putting our watershed at long-term risk of contamination from residual heavy metals and radionuclides.
- ODNR DOGR’s Orphan well program must be more aggressively implemented in order to locate many of the probable 200,000+ abandoned oil & gas wells that have no documented history, many of which may be located in source water protection areas throughout the state.
- The City of Columbus should demand that State of Ohio authorities ensure that the existing state-run well capping program for orphaned/abandoned oil & gas wells use all funds available to plug the maximum number of wells annually.
A relatively new issue since 2017 is that Ohio state legislators have repeatedly attempted to deregulate liquid oil & gas production wastes “brines” to the extent that they can be commoditized, i.e., bottled and sold in stores to the general public as home de-icers. Residents could then purchase these products and unknowingly contaminate their homes with radionuclides that will never go away and will always be present to work their way into their families’ bodies to potentially causing cancers and unleashing other health concerns.
This initiative by industry is ongoing, is facilitated by our state legislators, and occurs even as new data from their very own regulators indicates dangerously elevated levels of radionuclides in samples of the finished products waiting to be sold. This initiative to deregulate oil & gas waste comes at the same time that resident groups in Ohio are attempting to ban the spreading of these toxins on road surfaces. It is crucial that the public now understands risk levels that can be mitigated, if we demand that our state legislators and local authorities take measures to ensure that pathways are not enhanced that allow highly toxic substances from oil & gas production to be potentially ingested.
The Take Away
Columbus Community Rights Coalition and their associated organization, Columbus Community Bill of Rights, have always felt strongly that an informed public is required for a sustainable balance to be created and maintained between business/industry stakeholders and general public stakeholders who need our water resources to remain safe. This is of high importance now, when considering how the oil & gas production industry manages these activities, especially disposal of wastes which we now understand are highly-toxic and radioactive, and which remain sorely underregulated, and as legislation is being introduced to underregulate further. We hope that inhabitants of Central Ohio will understand that oil & gas production activities do not only affect residents in the eastern parts of Ohio, where attention has been focused on the fracking issue over the past decade, but that it affects them as well.
References & Where to Learn More
This paper will soon be available on the Columbus Community Bill of Rights/Columbus Community Rights Coalition’s website at www.columbusbillofrights.org.
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