"Our water comes from the Ohio River."
That's the voice of Kaleel Skeirik, a music professor at Xavier University. The university is in Cincinnati and Skeirik lives in a suburb. Both places are in southwest Ohio, far from the eastern Ohio hills and fields where the oil industry is extracting oil and gas from shale deep underground.
Yet the Ohio River, even at its farthest reaches, represents the latest battleground in the environmental and safety debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That part of Ohio is not likely to see oil, gas or the fracking byproduct of chemical-and-sand-infused wastewater coming out of the ground. But under a proposal being considered by the U.S. Coast Guard, barges could move the wastewater down the Ohio and other navigable rivers as the industry seeks new places to dump fracking's waste.
Ohio already allows drillers to inject the wastewater into the deep ground, using old and empty oil and gas wells or creating new ones for storage. Ohio's geology is more hospitable than Pennsylvania's for injection storage, as is its law for creating new storage wells, experts say. But so far, that has required collecting the wastewater first in tanker trucks so it could be driven elsewhere for deposit.
Barges, some say, would make more sense. This would reduce truck traffic and "is just another mode of transportation," said Mike Chadsey, spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Barges would also make it more efficient for the industry to move fracking waste to more locations, whether old wells in Louisiana or even places like the Cincinnati Arch in southwest Ohio, where sandstone that is closer to the surface would make it easier to drill new injection wells for wastewater storage.
This sounds reasonable, simple and safe to the oil and gas industry.
But it horrifies other people – and not just environmentalists who already oppose fracking because they say the process could contaminate ground water near the drilling sites.
The proposal also worries some in local government who say that if the waste is carried by barge, a spill or barge accident could harm the source of drinking water in cities such as Cincinnati and its suburbs, which get their water from the Ohio River. Fracking wastewater can contain, among other things, barium, bromide, benzene and radioactive isotopes, all potentially harmful if it got in drinking water.
"What happens to the water when there is a spill, and what happens to the water intakes" on the river?" asked James O'Reilly, a University of Cincinnati law and public health professor and a city council member in the suburb of Wyoming. "I am concerned, as an elected official, about what happens to the water intakes."
The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission said in a letter to the Coast Guard that the wastewater "can pose an immediate threat to drinking water utilities if released to the river."
The overwhelming majority of comments submitted to the Coast Guard by last Friday, the close of the public comment period, were of a similar nature, with most opposed to the Coast Guard proposal.
Jonathan Smuck, of Steubenville, wrote to say that between 3 million and 5 million people get their drinking water from the Ohio River.
"As a resident of Steubenville, Ohio, I am one of them, and twice I have seen our city's water supply contaminated by industrial waste," he wrote. "In one case Steubenville cut water to Wintersville, Ohio, in a desperate attempt to conserve water." That was in the 1980s, he said in a brief telephone interview.
The two sides of the issue agree on little. Fracking uses long drills capable of going horizontally, and pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals, to break up shale deep in the ground, releasing trapped gas and oil. The industry says it is safe. It says that injection wells have been used to store wastewater from the oil industry for decades. And it says the volume of chemicals in the water and sand are minute and, when handled properly, safe.
"The water itself is basically the same kind of water as has been produced for the last 150 years" of petroleum drilling, said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
"This is basically saltwater," Fuller said. "This is going to be a lot less hazardous than many of the materials that these barges are moving."
He said the critics make "extreme" arguments and "grossly mischaracterize" the danger.
"The bottom line," said Chadsey, of the Ohio association, "is that this is just another way for us to move it safely and efficiently."
But some of the critics who wrote to the Coast Guard are not convinced about the safety of the storage technique, noting a series of minor earthquakes in Youngstown in 2011. Scientists say that the fluid dumped in an injection well increased pressure on a pre-existing fault there.
The industry says that was a rare exception.
O'Reilly, the University of Cincinnati professor, and others who contacted the Coast Guard also say that under the proposal for using barges, a company might not have to disclose all the chemicals or concentrations in its wastewater. Each load of fracking waste varies, and some barge loads could combine the wastewater from different wells.
Yet without specific information on the chemical makeup, emergency responders would not be equipped to deal with spills or barge accidents, O'Reilly said.
"It's a mystery package," O'Reilly said. "'Merry Christmas, it's in your river, now deal with it.'"
Furthermore, he said, the brine from the wastewater, contaminated with chemicals, would sink, making it much harder to contain than a spill of petroleum from a barge.
Oil floats, but brine sinks, "and the water is pushing it all the time. It's like a rolling wave."
O'Reilly says the Coast Guard should have run the proposal through a full rule-making process with an environmental impact assessment and a more rigorous review. Instead, the Coast Guard issued a letter outlining its proposed policy and told the public it had 30 days to send in comments.
The Coast Guard says it followed the right procedure.
An existing regulation already provided "a good framework for determining carriage requirements for Shale Gas Extraction Waste Water," said Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Diaz.
The Coast Guard says it does not know when it will make a final decision. A number of those submitting comments, including O'Reilly, offered ideas that would still allow for barge transport, but with restrictions on load size, on the number of tugboats required per barge, and on the amount of disclosure required for every load.
Coast Guard officials said they will review the public comments and will not take them lightly.
SOURCE: Xavier University