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.”
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…”