The aftershocks of Ohio’s fracking boom and the regulatory structure that supports it

By Nika Knight

As sun set on the final evening of 2011, a loud boom interrupted New Years’ Eve revelries in eastern Ohio. Valerie Dearing, who was ringing in the New Year in her living room in the small town of Poland, proceeded to walk clumsily across her moving floor. Her paintings rattled on the wall. She told me, “I wasn’t aware of shaking beyond the paintings on my wall moving around, but I was unevenly walking, so I was aware that something was going on. And the first thing that came to mind was an earthquake.” In fact, it was an earthquake graded at 4.0 on the Richter scale — with an epicenter in Youngstown, it was the largest earthquake recorded in the region to date.

Shale gas drilling tower [Credit: Ruhrfisch, via Wikimedia Commons]

Shale gas drilling tower [Credit: Ruhrfisch, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dearing, a member of the local anti-fracking group Frackfree Mahoning Valley, had been reading about earthquakes a lot, back then, as she followed media reports that detailed the rising number of earthquakes near fracking activity in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. “Arkansas had had thousands of earthquakes,” she told me. But while the fracking boom was establishing itself in the northeast Ohio region, earthquakes were still alien to residents, back then. From 2011 to 2014, however, the city of Youngstown alone recorded 566 seismic events.

The quakes have become a wearying fact of local life. They are so prevalent, now, that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recently created an online map of their epicenters for citizens to reference if they happen to feel the ground shaking underneath them.

The culprit? The regional boom in natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of the Utica Shale layer that lies underneath this part of the Rust Belt.

First, a bit of background: hydraulic fracturing is a process that was invented as far back as the 1860s, but was commercialized by Halliburton in the 1940s in order to finish tapping near-depleted oil wells. Today, thanks to the shrinking supply of easy-to-access liquid crude, it’s become widely used across the U.S. to access and extract oil and natural gas trapped in pockets of shale rock. In fracking, a well is drilled vertically and then horizontally, in a sort of “L” shape, into a layer of porous shale containing pockets of trapped fossil fuels. The well is lined with cement and pipe and then a mysterious chemical mixture called “frac fluid” — its precise contents hidden, legally, as a trade secret — is pumped into it, along with sand and saltwater. The high pressure created by pumping in the watery mixture eventually fractures the shale, releasing the gas or oil contained in its holes and fissures, and then that same pressure helps to push the fossil fuel back up to the surface.

[blocktext align=”right”]It’s not hard to imagine how a process by which deep layers of ancient rock are cracked could introduce some seismic activity to the region — what are earthquakes, after all, but moving fissures in deep layers of ancient rock?[/blocktext]It’s not hard to imagine how a process by which deep layers of ancient rock are cracked could introduce some seismic activity to the region — what are earthquakes, after all, but moving fissures in deep layers of ancient rock? But truthfully, earthquakes linked to the fracking process itself are rare.

The earthquakes that Dearing had been reading about — those out west — made headlines when they were finally linked to the fracking industry earlier this year, as the industry had long played down a connection. However, those earthquakes were connected by and large not to the fracking itself but to the wastewater disposal process. Fracking produces a massive amount of wastewater — more saltwater, or brine, comes up from the earth than does the sought-after oil or natural gas — and it, along with the drilling mud and shale cuttings that are also produced by the process, are injected back down into the earth as a means of disposal.

The sheer volume of wastewater injected back into the earth created earthquakes in those western states, in many places where there were known fault lines. Oil and gas industry spokespeople emphasized in news articles that it was most often the wastewater injection, and not the fracking process itself, that caused all those earthquakes out west.

But there have been no wastewater injection sites in Poland Township, a small town in Mahoning County that abuts the Pennsylvania border. There were, however, two drilling pads. And Poland Township saw seventy-seven earthquakes in a single eight-day period in March 2014. They ranged from 1.0 to 3.0 on the Richter scale — the largest one, at 3.0, was widely felt by locals. In Poland, it was the fracking itself that caused the earthquakes.

While some in the industry have downplayed these earthquakes, arguing that most of them are so small that they can’t be felt, many locals are more concerned. Ray Beiersdorfer, a geologist at Youngstown State University who also lives in Youngstown, notes that “with a normal tectonic earthquake, you’ll get the big one, and then you’ll get smaller aftershocks. But with this induced seismicity, you’ll get a swarm of smaller ones leading up to a bigger one. And then once it starts, the likelihood of getting more will increase.” He told me that he owns a three-story brick house in Youngstown, noting worriedly, “Brick houses were not made to withstand even small earthquakes.” Other people I spoke to described cracked foundations, chimneys separated from walls, and pipes hanging from basement ceilings.

[Credit: Gerry Dincher, via Wikimedia Commons]

Gas wells [Credit: Gerry Dincher, via Wikimedia Commons]

In response to the Poland quakes, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shut down the well pads in Poland a week after the earthquakes. In contrast, the state had waited eight and a half months to shut down the injection wells that had caused quakes in Youngstown throughout 2011 — that 4.0 earthquake had been preceded by months of smaller quakes — and so the state’s reaction to the Poland quakes was comparatively swift.

Beiersdorfer noticed the discrepancy. He pointed out, “Youngstown has the highest concentration of poverty in the country, it’s predominantly minority, low-income people, whereas Poland is a predominantly white middle- and upper-class environment.” He speculated, “Is this an issue of environmental racism, that Youngstown had to suffer for eight and a half months?” I contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and asked for an explanation for the discrepancy, but they did not respond.

Ohio has a reputation as a relatively deregulated state when it comes to the oil and gas industry. For example, a U.S. Government Accountability Office study published last year found that out of the eight states studied, Ohio alone did not require corporations to disclose the characteristics of fluids to be injected into wastewater disposal wells. Beiersdorfer also mentioned in our interview that the Ohio EPA does not track where fracking waste is buried in the state — and noted that fracking waste is often radioactive. (He directed me to a lecture by Ohio State professor Julia Weatherington-Rice, which deeply explores the radioactivity of fracking waste and Ohio’s lack of regulations surrounding it.)

This permissive regulatory atmosphere is perhaps a holdover from the region’s industrial heyday. The promise of jobs, after all, is why local and state officials have welcomed fracking to the state with open arms. And while several people I spoke to told me that the industry’s job-creating potential was exaggerated, it doesn’t seem that it has always been an empty promise: the state’s Department of Job and Family Services says that over 190,000 Ohioans are now employed by the oil and gas industry, and that shale-related employment increased 98% between 2011 and 2014.

By USGS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Diagram showing the location of the oil and gas assessment units for the Utica Shale in the Appalachian Basin Province [Credit: USGS, via Wikimedia Commons

But that same sense of regulatory permissiveness has also rankled many citizens, who say the state does not care to hear about the industry’s harmful effects to their land and to their bodies.

The discontented include Teresa Mills, a lifelong Ohioan and Ohio Children’s Health Coordinator at the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, a nonprofit that helps citizens organize to fight pollution. Mills said, “There aren’t a lot of steadfast rules regulating the oil and gas industry in the state of Ohio. Most of what they claim as rules can be totally ignored by the chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Everything is at his discretion. And there is nothing to say that he has to justify what he does.”

Mills was referring to “Chief’s Orders,” documents with which the chief of Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR, can unilaterally bypass a public regulatory process to approve the construction of auxiliary facilities that support the fracking industry — facilities such as water and brine treatment plants, which are necessary to support the processing and transportation of the tremendous amount of waste produced by fracking. Critics argue that such facilities should be subject to a formal rulemaking process — which would theoretically require government inspections and a period of public comment. But the application for and granting of Chief’s Orders are a process invented internally by the ODNR, with no public scrutiny, and it is unclear what parameters companies need to meet, if any, in order to receive one. When contacted for comment about Chief’s Orders, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources did not respond.

In November 2014, the Fresh Water Accountability Project and Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit against Governor Kasich and the ODNR for the use of Chief’s Orders permitting 23 fracking-related facilities to operate. The lawsuit is ongoing.

[blocktext align=”left”]Companies are operating under chief’s orders, when they should be operating under rules.[/blocktext]Mills complained, “We’ve been waiting for about two years now for these so-called rules on these facilities to come out. We still haven’t seen them. Companies are operating under chief’s orders, when they should be operating under rules.

Mills and other activists believe more regulation is sorely needed in part because locals are already feeling the physical effects of air and water pollution from the fracking industry. She described the adverse effects she herself has felt: “I’ve experienced the headaches while visiting the neighbor of a well pad. I became sick to my stomach while visiting an injection well.” She said that other illnesses she’d witnessed among Ohioans living near fracking and wastewater injection sites also included “rashes that cover the body,” respiratory ailments and headaches.

Another angry citizen is John Williams, and his efforts against fracking in Ohio have been a quixotic journey. A resident of Trumbull County, Williams has been fighting fracking in the state full-time for the past three and a half years, since he was laid off of his former job. He currently works part-time at Kmart — “Which really sucks,” he noted, “but you got to eat” — and devotes the rest of his time to anti-fracking activism. This often means attending public hearings around the state, posting his own recordings of many of them to YouTube, and agitating local officials to vote against fracking facilities in Trumbull County, which has the dubious distinction of hosting the most fracking waste injection wells in the entire state of Ohio.

Williams has been especially vociferous in his objections to an injection well belonging to American Water Management Services in Trumbull County. The moratorium on fracking in Youngstown extended over a seven-mile radius from the epicenter of the 2011 earthquakes — the Northstar 1 injection well — and so, he told me, American Water Management Services built an injection well precisely 7.1 miles from the epicenter.

Williams and other activists went door to door, spoke to local officials, “made quite a fuss” against the new well. And yet, “after all the earthquakes that happened in Youngstown, believe it or not, ODNR permitted the injection well,” he said. The head of American Water Management emphasized the state’s regulatory precautions, noting to local media that while ODNR would have once taken only 30 days to permit a wastewater facility, the regulatory agency took 19 months to approve American Water’s permit.

[credit: MeredithW, via Wikimedia Commons]

Shale gas drilling tower [credit: MeredithW, via Wikimedia Commons]

About six months after they began operating the well, American Water applied to increase the pressure in its injection well, and Williams was certain that the increase in pressure would cause an earthquake. He suspected that something would go awry because he recalled that it was only after Northstar 1, the injection well in Youngstown, had increased its pressure that the earthquakes happened. He contacted the media and again agitated elected officials to push against the request, which ODNR had already granted. The elected officials “never bothered to call ODNR,” he said. And sure enough, “Six days later, we had earthquakes.”

When I spoke to Beiersdorfer, the geologist at Youngstown State, he said, “some of this, it can’t be regulated. You know, you can’t regulate against earthquakes.” Fracking deep into shale sitting atop a fault line, as it turns out companies were doing in Poland, is more than likely to bring about a quake. But it seems clear from Williams’ anecdote that once a regulatory agency has seen fracking already cause an earthquake, it could do quite a lot more than the ODNR is currently doing to prevent further seismicity from happening.

In a paper for the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, Emery Gullickson Richards writes that recent reforms to Ohio law, requiring that well operators “submit a review of existing geologic data for known faulted areas so that wells will not be located in them and a plan for monitoring seismic activity,” among other things, “make Ohio’s regulation of induced seismicity risk the most robust of any state.” If Ohio isn’t doing enough, then, it seems other states are doing far less — at least when it comes to earthquakes.

[blocktext align=”right”]Even if Ohio, in a very hypothetical example, were to ban fracking, the state would not be exempt from the effects of fracking in the states that border it.[/blocktext]To perhaps be fairer to ODNR, it’s worth noting that while it operates only within state borders, it is the nature of extractive industries that their intentions and effects transcend all kinds of borders — towns, states, countries. This fact makes regulatory agencies’ decisions both more limited — a fracking moratorium in Poland, Ohio, can’t extend to equally earthquake-prone territory on the other side of Ohio-Pennsylvania border — and wider in scope. For example, West Virginia’s permitting of fracking underneath the Ohio River has the potential to affect not just West Virginia but all states downstream of it — Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

The permeability of borders, of course, goes both ways. Just as the Poland earthquakes were also felt in Pennsylvania, millions of gallons of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste is shipped to Ohio and injected into Ohio ground. Ohio has been forced to allow the import of all that radioactive waste from neighboring states because to prevent it would violate the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. constitution.

And so even if Ohio, in a very hypothetical example, were to ban fracking, the state would not be exempt from the effects of fracking in the states that border it. And it’s not even always a question of border states: trains carrying highly combustible oil fracked from North Dakota’s Bakken formation frequently trundle through the Mahoning Valley, and critics, such as Dearing, are concerned about the potential for a spill. Dearing worried, “There have been so many derailments, so many explosions in other places. You read about it almost every day.”

One person for whom the permeability of state borders — and fracking’s exacerbation of that permeability — has been thoroughly brought home is Maggie Henry, an organic farmer who lives just on the other side of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, eight miles from Poland.

Henry’s husband is the fourth generation of his family to farm their 100 acres of land. She’s 61 years old and has lived on the farm since she married her husband in 1979. The largest earthquake in Poland cracked her basement walls last March, necessitating a total renovation — an undertaking which she has yet to attempt — and she wonders, “Why isn’t the corporation that caused the quake and the damage responsible for making repairs to my home?”

It’s not only the earthquake damage that concerns her, though. She described how she had, over many years, created a “solid organic farming business,” with restaurant accounts, and a presence at a local food co-op and farmer’s markets as far away as Pittsburgh. But now Pennsylvania has allowed Shell to set up a fracking well on the neighboring property. Of her organic farming business, Henry wrote to me, “all of that was laid to waste by the industry and the use of chemicals that are known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins.” She continued, “How could I possibly claim to be ‘organic’ just because I didn’t spray with herbicides and pesticides when everything had been exposed to those chemicals?”

Flaring off natural gas [Credit: Ruhrfisch, via Wikimedia Commons]

Flaring off natural gas [Credit: Ruhrfisch, via Wikimedia Commons]

Everyone I spoke to for this story believed that there is no safe way to frack. Between the radioactive waste, water and air pollution, in addition to the voluminous use of freshwater for the process, and not to mention the earthquakes, it is hard not to classify it as an environmental travesty. But if Ohio and other cash-strapped states are going to continue to bring it in for the sake of jobs — as it seems they are determined to do — there must, surely, be a more effective way to regulate.

When I spoke to Dearing, I was calling from the depths of a frigid Maine spring. I asked about how spring was in Ohio, and Dearing exclaimed, “Right now, it’s exquisite. Spring has sprung, and everything’s in huge bloom, and it’s just gorgeous.” It’s the exquisite spring and summer greenery that I think of, when I remember living in Ohio, and it’s hard to place a mental image of well pads, earthquakes, and full body rashes into that landscape.

Ohio is one of the greenest places I’ve ever seen. Running alongside the fecund fields as a college student, my feet drumming the dirt beside those wide and empty roads, it was easy to feel like I was the last person on earth. Rural northeastern Ohio gave me the sense that nature could overtake us, so easily, if we were to only grant it the chance.

In my imagination, I envision nature being allowed to reclaim all that industrial construction, and jobs for rural Ohians being created that are dependent on the conservation and tilling of Ohio’s overlooked resources — not its fossil fuels, but rather its farms, its food, its natural bounty and beauty.

This is, of course, wishful thinking. For even if Ohio were to ban fracking today and cover all its fracking wells, even the sealed-up well pads are not safe. Beiersdorfer told me that gases fill up old mining wells and often leak from the concrete that is supposed to act as a seal — “industry’s own data shows that 6 percent of the vertical wells fail right from the get-go and then within thirty years fifty percent of those wells are leaking.” A horizontal fracking well is even longer than a vertical well, which means that a higher volume of noxious gases can fill up the empty wells and eventually leak into the atmosphere above them.

Even that earthquake-causing well in Poland, Ohio, has not exactly been sealed up and left alone. Dearing said that the site of the well pad that caused the Poland quakes, which was already located on a landfill, has seen a glycol processing plant built where the well pad once was. She said with the plant’s natural gas flare, which burns all night, “you can sometimes read a newspaper [at night] because of the brightness of it.” She also said that the ODNR had just granted it “permission for additional emissions.” Dearing discovered this because a state-level member of Frack Free Ohio regularly scours public records for news of new permits — there is no chance for public comment, no local control, when it comes to fracking in the state.

And so it seems that even if the 21st century’s fracking boom were to slow, or if Ohio’s regulatory agencies and elected officials were to somehow radically change their stance toward the oil and gas industry, long-suffering Ohioans and environmentalists will have a long, long, fight ahead of them.

Nika Knight is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Grist, and The Rumpus, among other places.

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