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Suspension of well operations examined

January 4, 2012
By DAN POMPILI - Special to the Herald-Star , The Herald-Star

YOUNGSTOWN - The suspension of operations at the Northstar Brine Disposal Well here may be costly for its owner, but industry professionals say it has little impact on those who have been using it to dispose of hydraulic fracturing wastewater.

And for one Warren company, it could mean an increase in business.

Northstar could not be reached for comment, nor could D&L Energy Systems, which owns the property on which the well sits. Both companies directed inquiries to Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

Stewart said the damage could be substantial for Northstar if the well remains inoperative.

"It takes millions (of dollars) to drill and maintain and operate, and you wouldn't do that without expecting a reasonable return," he said.

Stewart said the 180 or so injection wells in Ohio routinely accept more than 7 million barrels of brine wastewater annually, or 294 million gallons. He said it has been law in Ohio since 1985 to dispose of such liquids in that manner. He said more than 250,000 class II injection wells have been drilled in Ohio.

The company voluntarily shuttered the well on Friday after the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said more study was needed to determine its possible link to recent seismic activity. The company planned to meet with officials from ODNR this morning.

One day later, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake struck one-10th of a mile from the well site. That quake was the largest among the 11 that have struck the Mahoning Valley since March 17.

That same day, Gov. John Kasich's office issued a ban on all deep well injection operations within a five-mile radius of the site, including four non-operative wells.

Stewart said he does not believe research will reveal any link between the well and the earthquakes, despite the insistence of one geologic expert that the well "almost certainly" caused Saturday's quake.

"If there is a linkage, then there is some anomaly that may have caused this that is not consistent among the other wells in Ohio," Stewart said.

He added, however, that it is important for ODNR to ensure that injection well capacity meets the industry's needs, and said he would not be surprised if a correlation between the quakes an the well leads them to alter the regulation standards.

"I would not be surprised if DNR looks at this experience and then reevaluates their regulation process," Stewart said.

If the well is rendered inoperative, Stewart said the it would be plugged and abandoned.

"A huge economic loss for the operator, on the other hand the public has to have faith in the regulation process and nobody wants their house shaking. We have the public welfare to think about."

Likewise, Marcellus Shale Coalition Spokesman Travis Windle said the closure of any one well will have little to no impact on those using it for waste disposal.

"Marcellus shale operators are near a 100 percent recycle rate in Pennsylvania," he said. "There has been a fundamental sea change in how water is managed."

He said that while Ohio injection wells accept as much as 1 million gallons of brine water waste per day, that represents less than .05 percent of the total nationwide volume for class II injection wells.

For the brine that cannot be recycled, Windle said the producers keep it stored on site in tanks or retention ponds until it can be shipped out.

Windle's assertions, in turn, bolster claims by a Warren company that treating brine water is preferable to storing it in underground.

Patriot Water Treatment of Warren has contended in recent months that its means of brine treatment would be preferable to deep well injection.

"Patriot Water Treatment of Warren provides an alternative method of safely disposing of a large portion of the process water generated in the hydraulic fracturing process. Managing light process water from oil and gas drilling sites by initially treating, then disposing of the treated water avoids the need to inject it into a well, and, as such, avoids any potential for seismic activity."

Patriot pretreats the wastewater trucked into the city from drilling sites to remove contaminants. That brine water is then sent into Warren's sewer to the city plant before it's discharged into the Mahoning River.

In May, a letter from the ODNR indicated that the permit would not be renewed.

A public hearing on whether Patriot should be allowed to continue treating the water is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 12.

If issued, the permit would allow the facility to continue discharging treated effluent into the Mahoning River and would be effective for five years.

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