Spreadsheets show more than 800 releases of gas, oil, brine or other materials from industry activities onto the ground or into the air and water since 2018 began.
Public records show Ohio regulators log hundreds of incidents each year dealing with chemical releases related to the oil and gas industry.
Such events raise critics’ concerns about plans to drill for oil and gas under state-owned parks and wildlife areas. While most problems happen at rigs and wellheads, which will be outside the parks, critics say airborne releases of methane or other chemicals would not be limited to property boundaries. And they fear that runoff could reach groundwater or surface water sources for state parks and nearby areas.
Jenny Morgan, a volunteer with the group Save Ohio Parks, said she asked the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for public records after Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said in a radio appearance last month that environmental problems and safety-related events “are certainly isolated events” when considered in light of the amount of industrial activity over the past 13 years.
Brundrett told the Energy News Network the state has nearly 63,000 oil and gas wells and thousands of miles of gas pipelines. And he focused on incidents that rose to the level of “major” or “severe” problems.
Morgan said the ODNR documents provide a very different perspective.
She also noted an event earlier this week, where a gas leak at a Guernsey County well pad triggered a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius. The sheriff lifted the order Monday night, but cautioned residents to seek medical attention if they had headaches, dizziness or trouble breathing.
The ODNR spreadsheets sent to Morgan last week show approximately 1,530 incidents from the start of 2018 through Sept. 10 of this year.
Agency personnel classified three events as “major” or “severe,” meaning they presented relatively high degrees of public safety or environmental impacts. They took up to a day or longer to control and required involvement by multiple agencies.
A “major” event on July 11 required the evacuation of more than 450 people in Columbiana County due to a well pad gas leak, for example.
Another two dozen incidents rose to the level of “moderate” events. ODNR’s spreadsheets say those events involved “considerable” public safety or environmental impacts. Problems took up to 12 hours to control, often with involvement from multiple agencies. Chemical releases exceeded various regulatory reporting thresholds.
Roughly 790 events during the nearly six-year period fit into ODNR’s “minor” category. The spreadsheets indicate those situations were stabilized in less than four hours with minimal public safety or environmental impact.
On Sept. 4, for example, a landowner accidentally struck a line with a brush hog, causing a gas leak. On Aug. 29, crude oil from a small flowline leak in Carroll County reached a dry ditch. On April 24, a Guernsey County site had a combustor fire while a truck was loading up at a well pad. A Jan. 7 “loss of well control” led to small amounts of brine on the soil and drainage area for a Noble County site.
Many of the remaining 600 or so events on the spreadsheets reflected referrals from other agencies, cases where ODNR gave technical assistance and matters outside the scope of ODNR’s oil and gas management work.
Events within ODNR’s jurisdiction dealt with oil and gas or brine and other fluids from both conventional and fracked horizontal wells.
“The ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources management will continue to carry out regulations set by statute and work to respond to incidents that need to be addressed,” said spokesperson Andy Chow, responding to the Energy News Network’s request for comment about public concerns over releases of oil, gas, brine or other materials into the environment.
“We’re just astounded at the fact that you could have this number of accidents and say that the oil and gas industry is safe,” said Melinda Zemper, another Save Ohio Parks member. The group is planning a rally at the Ohio Statehouse on Friday, Oct. 27, at noon.
ODNR’s categories seem to understate the problem, said Silverio Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert whose three decades of experience includes work with the Youngstown Fire Department and Mahoning County hazardous materials team.
For example, ODNR categorized as moderate a June 2019 Harrison County event where explosions and fire damaged nine tanks in the wake of thunderstorms at a fracked well site. The report surmises that most well condensate and brine burned. But approximately 11,000 gallons of brine were released onto a well pad. Booms and pads were needed to stop flow where the well pad’s containment was damaged.
“Moderate” events earlier this year include an April 4 wellhead fire and a June 1 explosion.
A “minor” event on Feb. 1, 2019, released approximately four barrels of brine at an injection well site in Licking County due to frozen pipes. The spill was apparently contained on the well pad, but trucks for cleanup couldn’t reach the site right away due to a snow emergency.
Multiple incidents in the ODNR spreadsheets involve injection wells and transport of brine or other waste fluids. Brine is super salty water that comes up from wells. It often has elevated levels of heavy metals, as well as naturally occurring radioactive material. Brine waste is generally disposed of in underground injection wells.
The oil and gas industry also adds chemicals to fluids pumped into horizontal wells shortly after drilling to fracture, or frack, shale rock so oil and gas can flow out. Much of the fluids comes back up before oil and gas production begins and most of the waste must also be disposed of in deep injection wells.
“The sad thing is that a lot of these chemicals are unknown because they don’t have safety data sheets with them,” Caggiano said.
Even if one excludes complaints about odor, smell or plain informational reports, “you’re still looking at 50 to 60 calls a year” statewide, Caggiano added.
In Caggiano’s view, an average of one call a week, even for “minor” incidents, belies the industry’s claims that there are few problems. Even quickly cleaned-up releases involve chemicals that can be toxic, he said. And “obviously [prevention plans] didn’t work, because you had an incident,” he said.
“The fact that there have been only three major incidents since 2018 is a testament to the industry’s rigorous safety standards and practices,” said Brundrett at the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “Considering that only .004% of Ohio oil and gas operations have had a major reportable incident during that timeframe, I would put our industry’s safety numbers against any other manual industry in Ohio.”
The information from the spreadsheets also “highlights the important steps of transparency and government cooperation that the oil and gas industry has adopted to minimize risk to the environment, our employees and the people of Ohio,” Brundrett added.
However, critics don’t discount “moderate” or even “minor” events.
“The cost is the collateral damage to the people and the environment in these areas,” said Roxanne Groff, another member of Save Ohio Parks.
The logged incidents also raise worries for her and others about proposals to drill under Ohio state-owned lands, including Salt Fork and Wolf Run state parks and Valley Run and Zepernick wildlife areas.
“What if it happens around Salt Fork? What if it goes into one of the major feeds into Wolf Run or Salt Fork Lake?” Groff said.The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission plans to rule on the proposals to drill under ODNR land before the end of the year.
Photo: A petroleum well in Licking County, Ohio. Credit: James St. John / Creative Commons