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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Following a nearly year-long hiatus brought on by a rare earthquake, state regulators are again approving new injection well sites in Ohio, slowly moving the epicenter of waste disposal to Portage County.
Earlier this month, Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials gave the green light to the placement of four new injection wells -- technically known as Class II underground injection wells-- including one in Portage County.
Waiting in the wings are another 31 injection wells, including a fresh series of eight injection wells slated for Portage County, which already has 16 active wells. Once all the wells are approved by ODNR brass, Portage County could have as many as 25 injection well sites, which would make it the leading disposal area for fracking waste in the state.
The new injection well sites are the first to be approved since a 4.0 magnitude earthquake shook Youngstown last New Year's Eve, most likely caused by fluid from an underground injection well leaking into a fault line, according to Columbia University seismic experts.
Following the tremor, state regulators shut down five wells at the epicenter of the earthquake and froze the application process. New well construction rules were enacted by state officials and seismic testing can now be ordered by ODNR officials before any new injection wells are approved.
But critics persist with concerns about seismic activity linked to injection well sites across the country as well as fears that injection wells could seep into drinking water -- something that has never happened in Ohio.
Right now, Ohio's 179 active injection wells are the disposal sites for oilfield waste fluids that are the product of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which millions of gallons of chemical-laced water are used to crack open rock formations holding gas deposits deep under the earth's surface.
State records show Ohio on pace to store a record amount of the waste in 2012 -- nearly 14 million barrels -- with about 56 percent coming from out of state, in particular, Pennsylvania. The barrels of waste typically contain a brine-water mix including chemicals used in the oil and gas production process, some of them toxic.
In Portage County, a large new cluster of both production and disposal wells between Windham and Nelson Townships in the northeast corner of Portage County could include as many as 14 wells once it's up and running -- with some only a few hundred feet apart.
The project is being planned by Hardrock Drilling & Producing. Half of the wells would produce oil and gas, and the other half would be injection wells that store waste.
The proposed project size worries locals such as Brian Miller, a Windham Township trustee whose land abuts the proposed location. "Nothing of this calibration, nothing of this multitude has ever been done in a geological formation in Ohio," said Miller. "We are going to be the guinea pigs for the whole state."
Miller said he's been told the site could eventually accept 270 to 300 truckloads a day operating year-round and around-the-clock.
And while state officials say it's not uncommon to have multiple wells going at one location, they acknowledge the scale would be unprecedented if all 14 were up and running.
However, Tom Tomastik, ODNR lead geologist for the state's injection well regulatory program, said the company plans to take the project slowly and isn't going to have 14 wells going in the near future.
"That's not going to happen anytime immediately," he said. "They are going to drill one well and see how it goes."
Tomastik said the project will meet minimum spacing requirements and is on a large 1,500-acre site that will keep operations out of public view. Hardrock Drilling & Producing president Charles Cutter did not return a call placed for comment for this story.
Tomastik said the new injection wells being planned in Portage County would likely accept fracking waste from in-state as companies begin to develop gas deposits trapped in shale formations in Ohio. Meanwhile, 10 more injection wells planned in Trumbull County and three more in Mahoning will likely attract Pennsylvania waste as the fracking boom continues in that state, he predicted.
Rep. Kathleen Clyde, a House Democrat who represents most of Portage County, said the new wave of injection wells headed for her area is troubling.
"We shouldn't be the bargain basement state of getting rid of your toxic waste," she said. "Other states don't have injection wells, and Ohio is leading the way in taking on the waste. What is it about our regulatory framework that invites the industry to be so active here?"
One answer might be primacy -- that's the bureaucratic term for letting a state run its own program -- and the federal government gave Ohio primacy back during the Reagan era.
By contrast, Pennsylvania does not have primacy, which means the federal government has to sign off on all new injection wells in the state, causing delays and red tape. In addition, Pennsylvania does not have as many suitable geological formations for injection wells. The result is that the state has only a handful of wells and producers are increasingly trucking the waste westward into Ohio...