Groups oppose Pittsburgh-area fracking waste injection well

Regulators say earthquakes and pollution from well are unlikely

  • Reid Frazier

Environmental groups are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to revoke state permits for a fracking waste injection well in the Pittsburgh suburb of Plum.

It’s one of a handful of new injection wells permitted to operate in Pennsylvania by the EPA. The wells receive fluid drilling waste created by fracking and gas production.

The groups are worried that these waters — too toxic to be processed at municipal wastewater plants — will threaten private wellwater, the nearby Allegheny River, and that the high-pressure injection could induce earthquakes.

In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, the groups said the well “would present devastating risks to several downstream Allegheny River public drinking water systems, including the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority” which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands.

The letter points to a 2016 U.S. Geological Survey study that found oil and gas waste from an underground injection well in West Virginia had contaminated a nearby creek. The groups warn fracking waste could seep into groundwater and tributaries to the Allegheny River through a well casing failure or underground fissures caused by nearby coal mines and gas wells.

Representatives from Delmont, Pa.-based Penneco Environmental Solutions, the company developing the well, did not respond to requests for comment. The company’s website states that the process of underground injection is safe and “is crucial to environmental protection and energy production.”

In April 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection gave Penneco a permit to pump 54,000 barrels of waste (42 gallons per barrel) a month into the Murrysville sandstone, an 80-foot thick rock layer 1,900 feet below the ground.

A spokeswoman for Wolf said the governor would look into the issue, but said there wasn’t much he could do.

“(T)he governor does not have the authority to himself revoke or suspend permits,” said Beth Rementer, a Wolf spokeswoman, in a statement. “Ensuring that permitted projects meet all statutory and regulatory requirements is the responsibility of DEP and the department will review the details of this well.”

In granting Penneco’s permit, the DEP wrote that the well was “a lawful alternative to other disposal options that have greater risk to the public” and that it was “improbable” that the well would pose a problem to the public.

Oil and gas waste, or “brine,” is a liquid that can contain carcinogenic chemicals, heavy metals, and high levels of radioactive materials found naturally underground. A 2011 analysis by federal scientists found liquid waste from Marcellus Shale wells had concentrations of radium, a radioactive element found naturally underground, roughly 40 times what the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission classifies as “hazardous” or “radioactive” waste. (Federal law exempts oil and gas waste from being classified as “hazardous waste.”)

The brine is also high in salts, in many cases at levels far exceeding federal water quality standards. The EPA has banned disposing of this waste in municipal wastewater plants, a method employed by oil and gas companies in the early days of Pennsylvania’s fracking boom.

Oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania re-use 90 percent of the waste they create during the fracking process, according to the DEP, but the rest — over 200 million gallons per year, according to state waste records — is injected into underground wells. Most of the waste goes to Ohio disposal wells, but nine wells are operating in Pennsylvania, according to the EPA, while five more are under construction.

The DEP and EPA say the waste injected into the Plum well, at a depth of 1,900 feet, will be far enough away from shallower underground aquifers, and shielded by impermeable shale layers, that it won’t pose much of a threat to the public.

They say that the well is several thousand feet above any faults or seismically active formations, far enough away that injections won’t cause earthquakes. In several states, including Oklahoma and Ohio, geologists have concluded that wastewater injected close to fault areas has caused earthquakes.

But groups opposing the well are not swayed.

Tony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Cornell University, reviewed the company’s permit for the local groups, including ProtectPT, Breathe Project and Citizens 4 Plum.

Ingraffea, who was not paid by the groups for his review, said the well wasn’t originally designed to accept highly pressurized liquid waste, and worries stress over time could lead the well to fail. The well was constructed in 1985 as a natural gas production well, before Penneco converted it into an injection well.

“Rather than low pressure upwelling of natural gas inside the well,” Ingraffea said, “it’s now going to be tasked with injecting much higher pressures repeatedly over a long period of time, liquid waste. This makes the well design from 1985, in my opinion, inadequate for this new intended purpose.”

As a precaution, the EPA has mandated the company install a monitoring well to keep tabs on groundwater near the injection site.

Terry Engelder, Emeritus Professor of Geosciences at Penn State, said that freshwater is more buoyant than the salty wastewater injected into disposal wells. Because of this, he said the wastewater is unlikely to migrate upward through cleaner underground aquifers.

“The chances of this wastewater migrating upward a thousand feet, particularly if it’s managed in a reasonable rate of injection, is slim,” Engelder said.

But Engelder said certain conditions could cause injected wastewater to migrate — like the presence of old oil and gas wells nearby.

The Plum well is drilled through an old coal mine, and Penneco identified 16 abandoned gas wells in a half-mile radius of the injection well and 66 gas wells within one mile. Several nearby gas wells have been plugged by the company, but a geological analysis conducted by the DEP found the company couldn’t find “a number of wells” located on historic farm and mine maps using “metal detecting equipment.”

“I think that the presence of those gas wells would call for extra care,” Engelder said.

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