Justin Nobel | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)

We begin with a glass of wine on the wraparound porch of Michele Garman, who lives with her husband Tom and teenage son Dominic in the rural Ohio community of Vienna. Just 200 feet from the family’s house is a narrow shaft that the oil and gas industry uses to pump waste riddled with toxic chemicals deep into the earth, one of Ohio’s 217 active Class II injection wells. “I still enjoy sitting out on my porch,” says Garman, “but it was a lot more enjoyable before the scenery changed.”

The small white and maroon trucks that deliver the waste often come at night, she says. They contain what regulatory agencies innocently refer to as produced water, or brine, a slurry generated during fracking operations that can contain more than 1,100 chemicals and which is carcinogenic, flammable, and radioactive. Garman says she and her son occasionally smell, “a sweet odor in the air, almost like antifreeze.” One night last winter an alarm went off. “There was a red light and a real low siren,” she says, “and no one to call to see what was going on.”

Trucks line up at the K&H injection well facility in Torch, Ohio. (Courtesy: Felicia Mettler)

In the morning, before heading off to work, Garman is back on her porch with a coffee, staring at a series of tanks, where the waste is temporarily held before being shot down the injection well. “The biggest thing,” she sighs, “is the worrying. What am I not hearing? What am I not seeing? What is being released into the air? The water? The soil? What does this mean for our health years down the road? That is the stuff that really eats away at me constantly.”

Michele Garman and her family are not alone. We journey 200 miles south, to a land of low wooded hills not far from the Ohio River, where Phyllis Rienhart, 66, lives with her 78-year-old husband Ron in a stick frame house that Ron built with their son. Their town, Torch, doesn’t have a single store. But for Phyllis and Ron, it is home. “Most of my family lives on this road,” says Phyllis. “And yet we have this monster on that hill.”

The house is 1,800 feet from a mammoth injection well. Unlike Michele Garman, she has never heard an alarm. Instead, her injection well clangs. “One day we were outside here on the porch and I was thinking, it’s raining, because the bird bath was vibrating,” says Phyllis. “I went in the house but could still hear the noise — clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang — and it just got louder.”

In 2016, she and some neighbors staked out the injection well for a period of 24 hours. They observed 108 tanker trucks come and go. The trucks discharge their fracking wastewater into holding tanks. Hydrocarbons in the waste emit flammable vapors that accumulate in the tanks and are vented off the tops. In April 2016, lightning struck an injection wastewater storage tank in Greeley, Colorado, “heating the metal to thousands of degrees, which ignited the vapors inside,” reported the local paper. “The tanks subsequently exploded, shooting up hundreds of feet into the air.” The thought of a similar fireball erupting in her backyard keeps Phyllis up at night. She fears thunderstorms. She sees a neurologist. “I have anxiety,” she says.

Phyllis is trying to figure this thing out, but it is bigger than her. “What if they got it wrong?” she wonders. “What is it doing to our earth? What is it doing to our water? Not to mention the air that we breathe. I mean it is waste for god sakes, it is chemicals…And I ask them, are you going to have enough hazmat suits for all of my grandchildren? These people are dealing with paper and statistics, I am dealing with my family. They say it’s good for the economy, but I can’t find anything it is good for. And these things are popping up everywhere. There are more, and more, and more…”

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” declares Ohioan activist Teresa Mills, Executive Director of the Buckeye Environmental Network. “Ohio is in a state of emergency.”

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Demonstrators protesting against the Ginsburg injection well in Athens County, Ohio. (Photo: Felicia Mettler)

America has had gold rushes and silver booms and even a uranium boom, but the boom presently happening in rural Ohio shocks the conscience. Deep beneath the state are layers of sandstone and limestone filled with tiny interconnected holes, making it a perfect place to bury liquid toxic waste. In 2016, Ohio injected 1,342,561,206 gallons of fracking wastewater into the earth, under full approval of Governor John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the EPA. The expectation appears to be that this waste will sit snugly within the targeted layers for the duration of humanity. The state of Ohio is hardly alone, and injection goes far beyond fracking. Across America, industry has transformed mother earth’s nether parts into a gigantic toxic waste storage locker.

Industry used to dump its waste directly into rivers — Ohio’s Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire because of pollutants during the 20th century, most famously in 1969 — but in 1972 the Clean Water Act forbade this, and in 1980 the EPA formally established its Underground Injection Control Program. “Injection,” states an EPA website, “proved to be a safe and inexpensive option for the disposal of unwanted and often hazardous industrial byproducts.” A shaft is drilled into a layer of porous rock — such as a sandstone or limestone — that is capped above and below by what are thought to be impermeable rock layers, and liquid waste is pumped down the hole to the targeted layer where it spreads out into the poorly understood deep earth environment. “We know more about the surface of the moon,” one state geologist told the Columbus Dispatch in 2014, “than we do about the basement in Ohio.”

Princeton geomicrobiologist Tullis Onstott, author of the 2016 book, Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars, and Beyond, has found bacteria thousands of feet below the surface, as well as worms. Even more troubling is the revelation of just what else might be down there. Onstott and his colleagues believe the primordial isolation of the deep earth make it a prime place for what is known as abiogenesis. “We think life does evolve there,” he says. And yet America pumps away.

In 1950 there were four industrial waste injection wells in the United States. In 1967 there were 110. Today, just counting wells that explicitly deal with industrial waste, including that of the oil and gas industry, America is pocked with at least 199,332 injection wells. If you drove from New York to Los Angeles and lined the highway with these injection wells you’d see one every 74 feet. “Nearly 40 years after its explosion in popularity,” the Center for Health, Environment & Justice reported in 2009, “deep well injection of hazardous wastes remains the most used waste disposal method in the U.S.” And all this time we thought we’ve been making progress in healing our environment — No, we’ve just cunningly altered the parts of it we’ve been destroying.

Just what is being put down America’s injection wells? Mining waste, highly acidic waste pickle liquor from iron and steel production, incinerator scrubber water, landfill leachate, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, hot acids, agricultural chemicals, slaughterhouse waste, battery solid waste, metal plating waste, laundromat waste, trichloroethylene sludge, phenolic waste, acidic industrial waste, hazardous oilfield waste, herbicide waste, waste from creosote wells, liquid wastes from industrial waste generators, organic solvents, pesticides, PCBs, Agent Orange, dioxins, benzene, cyanide, toluene, lead, barium, acetone, xylene, caustics, hazardous solvents, corrosive chemical waste-acids, and let’s not forget, two billion gallons of fracking wastewater every single day.

Many of the above compounds and materials are carcinogenic. Some can make you sick simply by touching them. None you’d want in your cup of coffee. Or, one would think, under your toes. But there they are, America has laced her undercarriage with toxic chemicals, and the trend shows no sign of letting up. Well-meaning laws like the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1984 made it harder for industry to dispose of hazardous waste in landfills, and with dumping in rivers illegal it is perhaps no surprise injection remains king. “Injection into the subsurface,” states an EPA injection well training document, “is one of the primary means of disposing of liquid wastes in the United States.” Pages 14 to 22 of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice report lists some of the places in the country where these wells, deemed “safe and inexpensive” by our EPA, have leaked or incurred other “mishaps.” — Check it out. There are also injection wells in the ocean.

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But what is happening in Ohio is special. The region is in the grips of an energy rush. Underlying western and northern Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia, eastern Ohio, southwest New York and a sliver of Maryland is a 389 million-year-old layer of gray-black rock called the Marcellus Shale, formed when the region was near the equator and submerged by an inland sea. Its riches are absolutely tremendous, says Terry Engelder, the Penn State geologist whose research helped trumpet the Marcellus’s wealth to the world: 225 trillion cubic feet of economically recoverable natural gas. The Marcellus alone could run the nation’s gas needs for a decade. Deep beneath it is yet another massive gas-rich shale layer called the Utica.

To get this gas requires fracking. A median of four, or even five, million gallons of chemical-laden water and sand pumped at high pressure down each well to crack natural gas out of cavities in the shale and send it flowing to the surface. The fluid which later surges back up is known as flowback, or fracking wastewater, and must be disposed. While the oil industry may boast of reusing wastewater to frack new walls, eventually the liquid wastewater that rises to the surface after a well is fracked must be deposited somewhere, and that somewhere is typically down an injection well. Because the geology for injection is less ideal in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where environmental laws are also tighter, much of this fracking wastewater ends up in Ohio. Ask people who live beside injection wells like Michele Garman and Phyllis Rienhart and they’ll tell you license plates on the wastewater tanker trucks cruising through their towns most often read Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Though the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, ODNR, is generously compensated for accepting this gift. For each barrel of out-of-state fracking wastewater injected into an Ohio well, the agency receives twenty cents (it receives a nickel for in-state waste) — not even enough money to buy a pack of gum.

Astonishingly, ODNR does not record in real time where tanker trucks carrying fracking wastewater originate from, nor does the agency sample the trucks’ contents before they’re pumped deep into the earth. “They are putting waste down a well and have no idea what is in it and where it is coming from,” explains Mills (she earned the nickname Housewife from Hell leading a bitter fight to halt a Columbus waste incinerator in the early 1990s). “People say ODNR is there for health and safety of the citizens,” Mills continues, “and I say, ‘Excuse me, tell me who at ODNR has a health and safety resume. Is there a toxicologist there? Is there a doctor there? No! It is not even taken into consideration.”

A 2012 paper published in the scientific journal, Risk Analysis, analyzed the entire operation involved with fracking the Marcellus shale and found that by “several orders of magnitude,” the greatest potential for contamination lay in the multiple steps of the wastewater injection process. The paper cites the possibility of tanker truck spills, leaks in the well casings, leaks underground and drilling site discharge. Another study, published in 2016 in Environmental Science & Technology, and co-authored by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) examined a West Virginia injection well site and determined that, “activities at the disposal facility are impacting the stream that runs through the area.” A sister study examined endocrine disrupting chemicals — lowering of sperm count, infertility — and reported “significantly greater” quantities at the site of the injection well and points downstream.

Then we have events like this: In 2015, a Vienna, Ohio injection well site — not Michele Garman’s, a different one — spilled thousands of gallons of a light-end petroleum derivative called drip gas into a wetland, then failed to report the spill. A neighbor who owns a nearby pond reported an “orange slime,” as well as dozens of dead fish, a dead muskrat and a dead turtle. A year prior Benedict Lupo, the owner of a Youngstown Ohio fracking waste storage and injection company, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for directing his employees to dump 20,000-gallon fracking wastewater storage tanks into a storm drain that emptied into a local creek. Apparently, this intentional discharge occurred on 33 separate occasions.

The injection well site that scientists linked to the magnitude 4.0 man-made 2011 earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio. (Courtesy: Jane Spies)

And two years ago, in the village of Barnesville, Ohio a tanker truck loaded with fracking wastewater overturned at the upper end of the village’s main reservoir, dumping approximately 4,300 gallons of fracking wastewater into the town’s primary drinking supply. Not surprisingly, these types of incidences scare the hell out of local water districts. “I am writing concerning injection wells and brine disposal issues that is now starting to hit closer to home,” wrote Donald Poole, General Manager for Tupper Plains Chester Water District, in a June 2015 letter to James Zehringer, Director of ODNR. “This waste has hundreds of chemicals, many toxic or hazardous to health and radioactive materials…Our Board feels that we should be told, along with the public, what is in the injected material.”

Fat chance. The water district also took issue with the threadbare piece of scientific thread holding the concept of injection together in the first place. “There is a great many voices stating this material will never come back to the surface and will never come back to our aquifer after they have drilled through it to get to the depth they want to inject,” states the letter. “We have found that this type of argument is somewhat flawed.” ODNR has yet to answer the following three questions of mine:

1. Can you explain to me, in terms of geology, hydrology or other aspects of science, how ODNR knows that the fluids injected into Ohio’s Class II Brine Injection wells is going to remain in the target zone of injection?

2. Is it expected that fluids injected down Ohio’s Class II Brine Injection wells will remain in their target zone of injection forever, or at some point does ODNR expect these fluids to leak or migrate out of their target zone of injection? And if that is the case, approximately when might ODNR expect the fluids to leak out; in 10,000 years? 100,000 years? …1 million years?

3. What ability does ODNR or the injection well operator have to track the movement and whereabouts of fluids injected down a Class II Brine Injection well once they are underground?

Youngstown State University geologist Raymond Beiersdorfer offers several ways for the toxic wastewater to migrate out of its targeted zone of injection. The lower part of the well is lined by cement, which naturally cracks and fails over the years. Some injection wells are used for decades, so not only may toxic waste be leaking out into other earth layers as it is being pumped down, but the cement cap used to plug a well will eventually fail, providing the waste a pathway up through the impermeable cap and out of its supposed eternal home. Many injection wells, he says, are lined with no cement at all. And as Beiersdorfer points out, there are around half a million active and orphan oil and gas wells in Ohio. For waste working its way through rock layers, he says, citing a situation that actually happened in West Virginia, “it would just have to get to an older well, which could then provide a pathway for it to get back up to contaminate groundwater and surface water.”

There are also, says Beiersdorfer, “geologic fractures in the earth that can lead the waste out,” and cause earthquakes. Beiersdorfer has noted at least 1,157 earthquakes at 10 different locations in previously aseismic Ohio counties since 2011. “All of the earthquakes were human induced,” Beiersdorfer explains, “due to fracking for shale gas or injection of liquid fracking waste.” The USGS has linked injection to earthquakes in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, a state that before deep well injection began in earnest rarely experienced magnitude 3+ earthquakes but in 2016 alone recorded 623 of them. Among the Ohio quakes caused by injection was the Magnitude 4.0 quake at the Northstar 1 injection well on December 31, 2011, which shook the homes of residents in Youngstown and was determined to be caused by the operator injecting into Precambrian basement rock. Whoops.

“I have information that I can’t really share,” whistles Felicia Mettler, an energetic activist from Coolville, Ohio and co-founder of the group Torch CAN DO (and Phyllis Rienhart’s daughter-in-law), when asked about the sketchy operating procedures of the injection well industry. “But I can tell you this,” she says. “Industry lies to all these workers, they are truly told that it is just salt water, it is just brine. And there are people who are sick, they have cancer. The workers in this industry are being deceived.” She reveals what the last presidential election broadcast across America, that Ohio is in an economic slump. “We don’t have any jobs,” says Mettler. “I blame a lot of this on our lawmakers, because this is the jobs they are allowing to be created. I mean come up with a better job, really!”

Lorry Wagner believes he has. He is an engineer and President of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, or LEEDCo, which is planning to build a small windfarm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “We have a good maritime industry, major shipyards, a steel supply, heavy manufacturing and fabrication, and a capable workforce,” says Wagner. With 312 miles of shoreline on a lake that gets excellent wind and is lined with energy-hungry big cities and towns, “Ohio, and the Great Lakes, are really an ideal place for offshore wind,” says Wagner. He says the industry, if it took off in Ohio, could provide 8,000 in-state jobs. But Wagner’s wind turbines are yet to be built, and there is no wind boom happening in Ohio, instead there is a boom in injecting toxic waste deep into the earth.

“In Ohio it’s all about the oil and gas issues, that is really the only thing anybody pays attention to in the House and Senate,” says Wagner. “But what is frustrating, and what doesn’t make any sense, is just because you are oil and gas doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be going after wind. Offshore wind is a $16 billion a year industry in Europe, and has created over 100,000 jobs, and now has arrived in the U.S. Ohio is ideally positioned to become a leader in this new industry, the question is simply, does Ohio want to be a leader?”

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Felicia Mettler, her husband Sam, and their daughters Alexus and Autumn. (Courtesy: Felicia Mettler)

Back in Torch, Felicia Mettler is staring into the future.

“None of us were ever activists,” she says. “Never in my wildest dreams would I consider myself ever being an activist about anything, ever. I was afraid to even make a phone call. They said, ‘Why don’t you call the senator.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I was afraid. And now, wow, the transformation is complete. I am a completely different person. It is the passion. It is the passion for my kids. I have three children, and it is my job to protect them. What is their future going to look like, are they going to be sidestepping puddles of toxic waste near their playgrounds? It is my job to make sure they are going to have a future they can live in. They have the right to clean drinking water. They have the right to breathe clean air. They have the right to walk on ground that isn’t going to crack from an earthquake. And it is my job to make sure they have those things. I am their mom. We are the caregivers. We are the protectors.”

Deeper into the future.

“Eventually there is going to be more subduction,” says Beiersdorfer. “We have the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is making the Atlantic open up. The whole East Pacific Rise will get subducted. That means the Pacific Ocean will slowly be disappearing, and North America and South America will collide with Asia and Australia. Then the Pacific Ocean will close up, and more than likely when that happens new subduction zones will form, and places like the Caribbean will be a likely candidate. Next thing we will have Africa colliding into North America and making Everest-size mountains in Ohio. At that time, on the order of about 300-500 million years from now, what is now 9,000 feet beneath Ohio will be sitting on a mountainside that gets eroded by a river.”

And that, will be our legacy.

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Justin Nobel’s stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and Best American Travel Writing 2011, and 2016. A book he co-wrote, The Story of Dan Bright, tells the life story of a New Orleans man wrongfully convicted of murder, and was published last year with University of New Orleans Press.

Editor: Mike Dang
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel