Mansfield leads legal fight against injection wells holding fracking waste

Mansfield leads legal fight against injection wells holding fracking waste by Aaron Marshall, September 09, 2012, The Plain Dealer
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mansfield voters will decide this November if they want to join a growing movement among Ohio cities trying to block injection wells that store waste from the controversial hydraulic fracturing process. Using Ohio’s home-rule provision, Mansfield officials have placed ground-breaking language on the ballot designed to stop injection wells — aimed squarely at a pair planned by a Texas company — from being located in the Richland County city of 48,000. The Texas company has plans — approved by state regulators in 2011 — to build two injection wells on 4.9 acres and ship in up to 82 tanker cars a week of oilfield waste via train.

On Aug. 2, Cincinnati became the first Ohio city to vote to ban injection wells within its borders, and bans have quickly followed in the cities of Yellow Springs and Niles. Activists in Broadview Heights are pushing for a similar ban, and an Athens County advisory committee on drilling is pushing for changes to state regulations on injection wells that are about to be approved. The cities are seeking to avoid becoming dumping grounds for oilfield waste fluids that are the byproduct of the controversial process 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 to release the energy. The millions of barrels of waste produced typically contain a brine-water mix including chemicals used in the oil and gas production process, some of them toxic. Injection wells funnel the brine-water mix into geological formations thousands of feet below the surface for storage. Some of them are oil and gas production wells that have been converted, while others were originally designed as injection wells.

The threats from Mansfield officials have spurred a lawsuit filed July 13 in federal court in Cleveland by the Texas company — Preferred Fluids Management — that asserts that the city has no right under Ohio law to regulate the injection wells. It says a 2004 Ohio law clearly hands all decisions about drilling regulations to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. As some communities grow more concerned about injection wells, state officials point to a flock of tougher new regulations adopted for injection wells as proof that fluids can safely be disposed of in Ohio.

John Spon, Mansfield law director, said he’s prepared to go to the Ohio Supreme Court to defend his community’s right to protect its water resources, which he views as under attack. The language being voted on would establish a “bill of rights” in Mansfield’s charter and allow local officials to take action to protect those rights, including banning injection wells.

“The industry position is that the state statute pre-empts home rule, but our position is that the Ohio Constitution pre-empts the ODNR statute,” Spon said. He called regulations put in place by the department “ludicrous” and said they “defy all logic.” “The regulations they have established are grossly inadequate to reasonably protect the community,” said Spon. “For example, there is no requirement whatsoever for a company to disclose the toxic poisons that are in fracking fluids prior to actual injection.”

Preferred Fluids Management owner Steven Mobley declined to comment on his Mansfield project, but the company’s lawsuit quotes Ohio law stating that Natural Resources Department officials solely hold the power to regulate and permit the injection wells. In the lawsuit, the company says efforts by city officials to block its project have created “a cloud of uncertainty” and it asks the federal court to issue an injunction stopping the city in its tracks. Mansfield officials have not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

Applications for new injection well permits were suspended in January following a series of earthquakes in the Youngstown area last winter caused by oilfield waste fluids injected into a fault line. [Emphasis added]

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