Clearfield County residents challenge EPA on permit process

Earthquakes causing a stir over shale wastewater

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Widespread concerns about earthquakes and drinking water contamination have caused more than 50 Clearfield County residents to mount a novel challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's permitting of a deep injection well for shale gas drilling wastewater in a residential area.

The residents, in their appeals to the EPA's Environmental Appeal Board, claim the EPA did not properly or adequately consider the seismic risks posed by the 7,300-foot-deep waste water well, as required by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"The EPA seems to be extremely hesitant to make any decision on these injection wells based on seismicity grounds," said Emily Collins, supervising attorney at the University of Pittsburgh's Environmental Law Clinic, who is representing Richard and Marianne Atkinson.

"But based on the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA should be looking at this with more seismic concern, rather than turning a blind eye."

Environmental organizations long have argued that drilling waste water should be treated as hazardous waste and its disposal controlled by more stringent regulation, including a requirement that the EPA consider potential seismic risks. But the challenges to the Clearfield County injection argue the EPA's failure to require consideration of seismic risks in permitting Class II injection wells does not meet the Clean Drinking Water Act's prohibition of activities that could harm drinking water.

When considering permitting Class I wells for hazardous waste, the EPA must consider seismicity issues.

"The drinking water rules say government must consider endangerment of underground contamination of drinking water," Ms. Collins said. "They have to consider any threat, so this is something that needs to be looked at."

The Atkinsons live 900 feet from the proposed Zelman No. 1 deep injection well proposed by Windfall Oil & Gas Inc. for Brady Township. The EPA approved the well in February, despite the residents' objections that it could pollute groundwater and trigger tremors as injection wells did near Youngstown, Ohio, in December 2011, and in shale play regions elsewhere.

The Atkinsons and other residents, including the Clearfield County commissioners, appealed the EPA well approval, which automatically halted construction. Last week, the EPA's Environmental Appeal Board granted the agency a one-month extension, until May 16, to allow it to respond to all of the appeals. A decision is not expected for several months after that.

Steve Platt, an EPA senior geologist who worked on the Windfall well application, said it doesn't pose the same seismicity risk as the Youngstown wells because those were drilled into older, harder, fault-prone Precambrian "basement" rock. In Clearfield County, the Precambrian rock lies 8,000 to 10,000 feet below the Oriskany Sandstone the Windfall well wants to plumb.

He said that while the area is honeycombed with old mines and shallow and deep wells, the faults near the proposed Windfall well are "non-transmissional," meaning they shouldn't slip and cause earthquakes.

"We understand the public's concern," Mr. Platt said. And even thought the Class II well regulations don't contain specific provisions to consider seismicity, we do review that."

The five-year well permit issued to Windfall also requires the company to conduct annual "pressure fall off tests," to determine if fluid is migrating through any faults. Lubrication of faults can cause slippage that produces earthquakes.

The permit also would limit injection to 30,000 barrels a month or 1,000 a day. Mr. Platt said some injection wells in Texas and Oklahoma, where the rock is more permeable, inject 150,000 barrels a month.

Michael Hoover, president of Windfall Oil & Gas, said the Zelman well would tap into the Oriskany Sandstone, a more porous, sedimentary deposit drilled from the 1940s through the 1970s for the gas it contained.

"The Oriskany is a depleted rock reservoir that we will only be filling back up to its original pressure," said Mr. Hoover, who must still apply for a state drilling permit but can't until the federal appeals are settled.

According to the EPA, there are approximately 144,000 Class II wells in the U.S., most of them used to stimulate production of adjacent oil and gas wells. About 30,000 Class II wells are used to dispose of the more than 2 billion gallons of brine and drilling wastewater produced by oil and gas drilling operations each day.

Fully a third of those disposal wells are in Texas, followed by California, Oklahoma and Kansas. West Virginia has 65 deep disposal wells.

Pennsylvania has 11 federally permitted brine and drilling waste water disposal wells, up from six just two years ago. But four of the 11 are not operating or under appeal, according to EPA records.

Most of the drilling and fracking wastewater produced in Pennsylvania is disposed of in Ohio, Mr. Hoover said, adding "there's a real need for more disposal wells in Pennsylvania."

The active wells include two Bear Lakes Properties wells in Warren County, two EXCO facilities in Clearfield County, the Cottonwood and CNX disposal wells in Somerset County and the Columbia Gas well in Beaver County.

In addition to the Windfall well, a federal appeal is also pending against the Seneca well in Elk County. The Stonehaven well in Venango County has received a final permit but is not yet operational. The PGE well in Indiana County has received a final permit, but it remains open for appeal.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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