Expert: “The industry has too little concern for …….. public health, for our groundwater resources, and for facts.”

Letter published today in the Cleveland Sun Star Courier:

by James W. Cowden, Guest Columnist

Monday August 31, 2009, 9:24 AM

This is being sent as a result of the several letters on oil and gas drilling that have appeared in your pages over the past month.

The other paper has also published material including a column on the financial benefits to Ohio.

What has not been publicized has been the impact of oil and gas drilling on the natural resources and the public health of Ohio and its citizens.

I have been a consultant on environmental and resource issues for over 30 years. I have worked with Ohio EPA and the Division of Oil and Gas to curb and control the problems associated with the industry for a number of those years.

I have written ordinances for many cities in Northeast Ohio to allow them to control drilling in their communities. I have written a technical guide book for Ohio EPA. I have testified in court cases against drillers and their haphazard waste disposal practices, their drilling proposals, and the lack of adequate regulation.

The development of oil and gas wells is inherently a dangerous activity. Although there are few deaths and injuries reported, they do occur.

For instance, two men were killed in Marion County last October by an explosion of a crude oil storage tank.

The industry has too little concern for public health, for our groundwater resources, and for facts.

Natural gas is a highly compressible, highly expansible mixture of hydrocarbons, with approximate percentages of Methane-80%, Ethane-7%, Propane-6%, Butane-2.5%, Pentane-3% and Isobutane 1.5%.

In addition, natural gas may contain quantities of nitrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and water vapor. In Pennsylvania, methane related to the natural gas industry has contaminated water wells in at least seven counties since 2004.

In one case, methane was detected in water sampled over 15 square miles. In another, a methane leak led to an explosion that killed a couple and their 17 month old grandson. These cases were linked to newly drilled, active natural gas wells.

Essentially, the methane migration was linked to improper construction of gas wells that allowed gas to seep out of the well structures and into water supplies.

An adequate inspection system would have prevented these accidents from happening. Since the passage of HB 278 by our feckless state legislature, neither regulation nor inspection has been carried out adequately by the state.

Groundwater constitutes the most important mineral resource annually extracted from beneath the earth’s surface.

Water is an economic resource for Ohio and preservation is an economic necessity. Groundwater monitoring in the state is inadequate to detect water quality problems.

A product of oil and gas well drilling is brine.

What’s so bad about brines?

Brines are too concentrated, they have too much sodium and there is far too much of it, Clinton brines have 175,000-210,000 parts per million of sodium.

For comparison, ocean brines have only 18,000-35,000 ppm of sodium.

The USPHS standard at one time was a maximum of 250 ppm. One volume of Clinton brine can raise 800 volumes of fresh water above the 250 ppm limit.

There is no adequate program to address lack of disposal capacity. I do not have data beyond the 1980′s but I have no reason to believe the ratios have changed.

At that time, there were 56,000 producing wells with an average brine production of 184,000 barrels with an estimated injection well capacity of 36,000 barrels. The excess was 148,000 barrels.

That is roughly 6.2 million gallons, which if dispersed could make 4.8 billion gallons of fresh water unsuitable for use.

I tried to get legislation passed to prohibit brine in surface or groundwater in such quantity as to cause:

1. Taste and odor problems

2. Exceedance of safe drinking water standards or limit of 100 ppm of sodium

3. Damage or injury to public health or safety to include damage to the environment beyond the immediate site of drilling and storage of oil and gas.

4. This would include exposure to benzene, ethyl benzene, alkyl benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene, and 2,4 dimethyl-phenol that exceed drinking water standards. Also exposure to concentrations of silver, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and zinc that exceed drinking water standards.

This came from “Toxicological Analysis of Ohio Brine Constituents and Their Potential Impact on Human Health.” By Dr. Gerald Poje.

Regulation 1501-9-9-02 at one time required all reasonable means to safeguard against hazards to life, limb and property. It should require notification of local fire officials of fire, explosion, major gas leaks, water and air pollution and training on how to cope.

There are a number of recommendations I would make to amend state law and regulations and require compliance.

First would be to abolish the subservience of the legislature to the oil and gas industry and think about the public they supposedly serve.

There is a need to redefine the ground surface water system and restructure the approach from correction to prevention.

But unless the Division of Mineral Resources is mandated to protect human health and drinking water and is given the funds and staff to accomplish this, both public health and the economy will continue to suffer.


James W. Cowden is a resident of Brecksville. He has been a researcher, educator, coordinator and consultant at Kent State University and Hiram College and has written extensively and provided expert testimony on a range of topics including water resources planning, pollution control, public health and public involvement in policy development.