By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
The mere mention of oil and gas drilling sparks an emotional reaction. There are those vehemently opposed for fear of environmental contamination, and those wildly excited about the local economic impact of a gas boom.
But no matter which side you’re on, educating yourself about what exactly is happening is the answer, according to local government leaders, geologists and the drillers themselves.
Residents of Brookfield shouted questions to township trustees at a meeting last week, once word got out that American Energy of Cortland, Ohio, received approval from the state to put a Class 2 saltwater injection well on the old arsenal property at McMullen Road and state Route 7. The proposed site is about a half-mile from the Brookfield K-12 school complex.
“Why here? Why bring the garbage and dump it in Ohio? What are you going to do about this?” asked a woman, who identified herself only as Patty.
Trustees had little to say about the proposed well, but did say that although they heard that the driller was going to set up a public meeting with them, nothing has happened. The board was in a similar situation a year ago when another company proposed a similar well along Warner Road and in October 2012 passed a resolution prohibiting a saltwater well from being constructed near a residential center.
That permit ultimately was denied by the state and no well was drilled.
The problem is that the trustees lack the ability to enforce any such ordinance.
Officials at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources approve the permits. For that agency to deny a permit, it has to be proven that the drilling poses a safety risk, according to Heidi Hetzel-Evans, an ODNR spokesperson.
Dion Magestro, who just took office in his first term as a trustee, said he thinks it’s important for residents to educate themselves about drilling and hydraulic fracturing and the dangers associated with the process before they attend any public meeting.
“Everyone, myself included, needs to get online and find out more about it, so we can ask educated questions about what’s happening.”
Robert G. Barnett, president of American Energy, said he plans to attend the trustees’ next meeting, set for 7 p.m. Feb. 3.
“I plan on being there. And I’ll answer every question they have. I’m being very honest when I say we aren’t forcing this down anyone’s throat, and I know that lately there’s been a lot of bad publicity about this because of the dealings of another company, who were doing some bad things. But if this industry is to continue, we have to get rid of this waste somewhere,” he said.
Barnett, a geologist, is convinced the process is safe, due in large part to the design of the plan, the safety barriers put in place and ODNR’s scrutiny.
He isn’t concerned, he said, about an earthquake, because the pressures are monitored so closely. The saltwater well is drilled to about 8,500 feet, where four layers of concrete casing surround the lining of the pipe, ending deep inside the earth, past layers of rock that are not porous and will not allow the water to seep back up to the ground.
“Everything is protected. Nothing is going to contaminate any drinking water. And we’ll be monitoring those pressures, and if they start to get high, which tells us that the well can’t handle anymore water, we’ll shut it off. We have a kill switch right there,” he said.
Asked about concerns that the disposal well is right beside the school, Barnett said, “They’re not even going to know we’re drilling. It’s not a problem.”
School Superintendent Tim Saxton, nonetheless, would like an opportunity to speak with Barnett about the well. “I want to know what studies have been done. What’s the traffic situation? Some of this is untested in the long-term.
“I’d like to be cautiously optimistic in that it’s great for the area, any economic boom is great, but I don’t know that. I think given what’s happened in other locales, that the ODNR is a lot more in tune with this and will monitor compliance issues,” Saxton said.
Barnett said he expects about 10 trucks a day hauling the brine and plans to operate only during daylight hours, allowing about 1,000 barrels a day to be dumped.
Local geology experts Lindell Bridges and his partner, Laurel Alexander, who together run Pure Earth Resources in Sharpsville, said they believe much of the panic over fracking and drilling comes from misinformation.
Bridges has traveled the world from Alaska to China lecturing on drilling and the effects of fracking and has worked drilling thousands of wells in his home state of Arkansas. He’s spoken at Cornell University and at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s scheduled to travel to the Middle East in March for a similar lecture.
“I’ve spoken to everyone from first-graders to college students to CEOs,” Bridges said, “and I’d like to say that fracking isn’t anything new. We’ve been doing it since 1859, when they ‘shot’ the well in Venango County.
“We’ve been using modern fracking techniques since 1947,” he said.
Bridges explained that fracking is simply drilling a well, but horizontally, and injecting water to break up the rocks some 6,000 feet down, which then allows oil and gas in those formations to flow into the well and be pumped to the surface.
At times, chemicals are added to increase the “flow” of the water through the rock formations and when that wastewater comes back out of the ground, it contains some of those chemicals, Bridges said. But he cannot find a documented case, anywhere, where the wastewater has leaked and contaminated any groundwater.
“I go to give these talks and I get protesters who yell ‘You’re killing people!’ Well, who? Name me one person who died, and I’ll certainly look into it,” he said.
The recycled water that comes as a result of fracking contains many solids, Bridges said, and is primarily salt, but still has to be disposed of safely. Drilling a well down 8,500 feet, miles below the drinking water aquifer that feeds the water supply is the safest way, he said.
The reason that so many companies seek to dispose of the water in Ohio is because of the geologic formation beneath the ground. In Pennsylvania to the east and areas farther west, the rocks underneath lack the porosity and permeability to hold the wastewater.
“If you go by the regulations and do your background work, you can do a lot to mitigate any risk,” said Alexander.
ODNR posted several information videos on its website, which Lindberg and Alexander recommend viewing. The videos provide a dramatization of the drilling and safety measures. They can be seen at www.oilandgas.ohiodnr.com