Editorial: Ohio needs a consistent earthquake-risk policy on permitting fracking waste wells

A recent editorial by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Northeast Ohio’s unique geology has long made it a favored site for deep-injection-well disposal of toxic waste. But 35 years ago, two geologists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory — John Armbruster and Leonardo Seeber — first linked a 1987 swarm of Ashtabula County earthquakes to a 1986 injection well.

The two men pinpointed the epicenter of the main July 1987 earthquake at 0.7 kilometers from the well, which had started pumping toxic fluids into the sandstone formation one year earlier. They also found that the injected fluids had triggered a previously unknown near-vertical fault in the region’s basement rocks.

The biggest of those 1987 earthquakes, a magnitude 3.8 temblor, was felt across a large area, including the Ashtabula County communities of Ashtabula, Conneaut, Kingsville, North Kingsville, Dorset and Rome, and in western Erie County, Pennsylvania. It was followed by 12 aftershocks greater than 2.0 and a swarm of smaller temblors.

The 1987 discovery put everyone on notice of two things: First, deep-well disposal of toxic fluids could trigger earthquakes. And second, Northeast Ohio’s unmapped substructure of ancient fault lines could behave in unpredictable ways across a wide swath of populated areas.

Starting in March 2011, another swarm of earthquakes was felt along another previously unknown fault line in the Youngstown area. The 12 earthquakes were all within a mile of a deep-disposal well injecting oil and gas waste fluids into a Precambrian layer of rocks. Instrumentation from Lamont-Doherty was again deployed and, on December 24, 2011, pinpointed the epicenter of a 2.7 magnitude temblor at 2,454 feet below the injection well.

The well was shut down six days later. The next day, on Dec. 31, a magnitude 4.0 earthquake hit, causing then-Gov. John Kasich to impose a moratorium on other deep-disposal wells in the area.

Kasich later issued a temporary executive order imposing new regulations on deep-injection wells and increasing the authority of state officials. Eventually, the Ohio Division of Oil & Gas within the state Department of Natural Resources adopted new rules and approaches to improve its ability to detect and understand “induced seismicity” from such operations.

In July 2013, the Oil & Gas Division gave the go-ahead to AWMS Water Solutions LLC for two deep-injection wells on a five-acre site in Weathersfield Township in Trumbull County. According to court records, one of the wells was less than a mile from where the 4.0 earthquake hit in December 2011.

In March 2014, the division permitted waste injection to begin in both wells. The permits, court records say, lacked express language empowering the division to suspend operations if the wells triggered earthquakes .

In July 2014, a 1.7 magnitude earthquake was detected near well #2. In August, a 2.1 earthquake was detected in the same area. In September, the state suspended operations at both wells, but later let the #1 well reopen.

AWMS has been trying ever since to get the #2 well reopened, cleveland.com’s Eric Heisig has reported, including trips to the state appellate courts and Supreme Court to argue that the state’s stance constituted “taking” of its property.

Eventually, state regulators determined that the #2 well could reopen — but must shut again if a 2.1 or greater earthquake was measured within a three-mile radius, allowing the state time to determine the earthquake’s cause.

AWMS wants the trigger to be a 3.0 earthquake and it has asked the Ohio Oil & Gas Commission to let it reopen with the power to decide on its own when to restart after an earthquake-related shutdown. The state says a 3.0 earthquake trigger would create unacceptable risks in a populated area, including to an aging, unstable dam nearby. The hearing was held last week; a final determination is not expected anytime soon.

What’s needed, however, is not a commission fiat, but a clear and consistent ODNR policy on seismic risk and deep-injection-well permitting that puts public safety first, but with the seismic-detection instrumentation to match.

We now have decades of evidence that deep-injection disposal in Northeast Ohio can cause earthquakes. It’s time to spell out in permits what happens if a well is suspected of inducing earthquakes. Yes, AWMS knowingly drilled in an area of seismic risk, but its well was also fully permitted by the state — and has now been closed for nearly eight years.

Kudos to Ohio oil and gas regulators for putting public safety first when it comes to earthquake hazards. But they need to write that into the rules and permits up front, with a consistent and clearly defensible policy going forward.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 18