State records miss half the waste pumped into injection wells
By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG, April 16, 2015 — State environmental officials didn’t account for half the waste pumped into injection disposal wells last year, a comparison with federal data shows.
The state’s injection wells took 330,000 barrels of waste left over after natural gas drilling last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s about six truckloads a day.
The state Department of Environmental Protection only accounted for 167,500 barrels, according to its records.
That means about three truckloads of waste per day are unaccounted for in the state’s tracking system.
The discrepancy “begs the question of whether Pennsylvania should let the industry expand,” said Nadia Steinzor, eastern program coordinator for Earthworks Action, an environmental watchdog.
Pressure is mounting for more disposal wells to serve the burgeoning gas drilling industry.
Steinzor’s group released a report earlier this month that criticized efforts of Pennsylvania and three other states — Ohio, West Virginia and New York — in managing waste generated by the industry.
Injection wells are a conventional way of disposing of liquid waste from fracking, the process in which drillers use pressurized water and chemicals to release underground reservoirs of gas.
Controversy stems from studies that have blamed injection wells for earthquakes. Neighbors of proposed well sites also raise fears about pollution to water supplies and problems related to truck traffic.
Rep. Cris Dush, R-Indiana County, said the state has a “responsibility” to monitor the waste pumped into its inception wells. He points to language in the state Constitution guaranteeing clean air and water.
“When you are punching holes in the ground, we have a constitutional responsibility to protect the environment,” he said.
Only five injection wells accepted drilling waste in the state last year. Three others were approved but didn’t operate in 2014. Six more are pending approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The discrepancy in tracking waste poured into those wells arises from how regulators gather information.
The state’s system relies on drillers to report where they send waste. EPA data draws on reports submitted by operators of injection disposal wells.
In Pennsylvania, the EPA has primary authority for regulating injection disposal wells — oversight that the state ceded to the federal government 30 years ago.
State officials believe their reports are inconsistent, in part, because companies are not filing required reports. The DEP is investigating to determine if it must make internal changes to ensure reports are filed, and it pledges to issue notices of violation to companies that have not reported, said Amanda Witman, a department spokeswoman.
But other factors may play a bigger role in the gap in the data.
While New York has banned fracking, for example, conventional drillers in that state are likely sending their waste into Pennsylvania. State regulators don’t know how much they send or where it’s going, Witman said.
In other cases, drillers may send waste to pre-treatment centers. Drillers report the waste that is treated, but a treatment center does not have to report where the waste goes next, Witman said.
Eight treatment facilities in Pennsylvania handled a total of about 2 million barrels last year.
State regulators don’t know how much of that treated waste was then passed onto injection wells.
Operators of injection wells prefer treated waste since it’s easier to handle, said Karl Kimmich, president of Trinity Energy. His company owns the state’s only commercial injection wells, which accept fluid waste from other well drilling companies. Other injection wells only take waste generated by the drillers who own them.
EPA data shows that Trinity Energy’s wells in Bear Lake, Warren County, took 141,000 barrels of waste last year. DEP data only show about 6,800 barrels of waste sent there.
It’s not the only place with a discrepancy in data, however. In all cases, well operators reported accepting more waste than the state’s system shows.
Steinzor said the state needs a better handle on what’s happening.
Even though the EPA has primary oversight of the injection wells, she said, state regulators make decisions about how many new wells to allow. Those choices should be informed by accurate data, she said.
Len Lichvar knows all about the challenges of getting answers about injection disposal wells. The manager of the Somerset County Conservation District, Lichvar tried to make sense of government oversight of injection wells when he learned that two of the state’s eight permitted wells are in his district.
Officials at both the state and federal agencies tried to be helpful, he said, but he was still “disconcerted” by the difficulty in finding definitive answers.
“I was left with more uncertainty than certainty,” he said.
Dush, the state representative, said earlier this month that he’s considering legislation to ban injection wells.
But he tempers that language now, saying he doesn’t want to create a climate of conflict. Rather he wants a dialogue with the industry and public, he said, including hearings in rural areas where the wells are proposed.
Kimmich said his company deals with state and federal regulators. The state focuses more on what happens above ground, he said, while the EPA is more focused on what’s pumped underground.
Kimmich said state inspectors, in his experience, are diligent about checking to make sure that operations are conducted appropriately.
The EPA gets a report showing how much waste goes into the well and what kind of pressure that waste is kept under.
He described discrepancies in the data as a “record-keeping” problem, as DEP tries to reassure the public that the industry is keeping track of where its waste goes.
“There are people who say, ‘We don’t trust you because you’re just trying to make money,’” Kimmich said. “We live in this state. We are following the regulations the best we can.”