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Fracking Waste Disposal Wells Harbor Hidden Concerns

GRAPHIC: Oil and gas production and disposal wells. Courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
GRAPHIC: Oil and gas production and disposal wells. Courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
October 1, 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A loophole that lets oil and gas drillers dispose of their waste in loosely regulated injection wells is drawing criticism. When billions of gallons of used fracking fluid and the salty brine that comes up with natural gas are injected into disposal wells, some fear states like West Virginia could be setting themselves up for serious problems.

Although the fracking fluid and brine may contain serious pollutants, the industry got a federal exemption from the strict rules that regulate the injection of hazardous waste. Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, a water science and policy consulting firm, is studying what are known as Class II wells.

"There's been a series of exemptions related to the oil and gas industry. One of the important exemptions related to the Class II wells is the assertion that these fluids are not hazardous."

West Virginia has nearly 800 Class II wells. They are supposed to be regularly pressure-tested for leaks. According to an investigation by ProPublica, Class II wells in the state failed these tests more than 80 times from 2008 to 2010. Seven of the failures were determined to be serious.

Hansen says even the brine can contain natural toxins, such as arsenic and radioactive minerals. The public does not always know what is actually in the fracking fluids, he warns.

"There's more and more information out there. In some cases, companies are voluntarily disclosing the ingredients in fracking fluids. But I'm not confident that we have as much information as we need."

The industry contends that the brine and fracking fluids are largely safe, and that the wells go deep enough to protect drinking water, but Hansen says the wells can leak if poorly constructed. He adds that a lack of inspectors can leave drillers on the honor system about their construction methods and what they're injecting.

Then there's the issue of seismic events, he says. Class I disposal wells that handle hazardous waste are required to carefully consider the area's geology. But the oil and gas disposal wells are much less regulated. A study by the National Academies of Science linked the Class II wells to minor earthquakes, which Hansen says have been an issue here.

"Regarding small earthquakes or seismic events around some of these injection wells, there's been a case documented in Ohio, a situation documented in the Flatwoods area."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV