WINDHAM TWP.: In what should be the still of the night, Natalie Baker can feel her house shake.
It is a strange, disconcerting and troubling sensation, Baker says of the vibrations caused by a drilling rig 1,800 feet away off Frazier Road in Portage County’s northeast corner.
The neighborhood on the township line between Windham and Nelson is the epicenter, the hottest hot spot, in Ohio’s Utica shale formation — with 14 new wells planned, permitted or already under construction. Some are only a few hundred feet apart.
Half of the wells would produce oil and gas; the other half would be used for injection of briny wastewater.
“Who would want to live with 14 wells? I’m not confident that a leaking well would be detected and corrected right away,” Baker, 46, said. “Fourteen wells in one place is a nightmare.”
And apparently, unprecedented in Ohio.
Jeff Daniels, a geology professor and director of the Subsurface Energy Resource Center at Ohio State University, said he was unaware of any place in Ohio where there is such a concentration of production and injection wells.
From all indications, the Ohio Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management will approve the entire cluster of wells, despite environmentalists’ protests and increasing neighborhood tensions.
“We’re alarmed by what’s being allowed … and we have serious concerns about putting all these wells in one place,” said Gwen Fischer, a Portage County resident and member of Concerned Citizens Ohio. “We have serious reservations about how safe this will be and how the industrial nature of these wells will affect the whole community.
“This is a huge concern.”
Work begins on horizontal well
To date, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has approved six horizontal production wells and one 6,120-foot deep vertical test well, which has been drilled. Drilling of the first horizontal well is beginning.
Pittsburgh-based Mountaineer Keystone LLC will drill the production wells, then hydraulically fracture, or frack, them to free up natural gas and so-called natural gas liquids like ethane, propane and butane.
Hard Rock Drilling and Producing LLC, a company based in Wayne County, holds the leases on the seven pressurized injection wells proposed in an old sand and gravel pit on a tract that covers more than 1,200 acres.
C.J. Cutter, a spokesman for Hard Rock Drilling, said the two companies will drill at different depths in an area leased by landowner Dale Soinski. The injection wells will go down 4,000 to 4,200 feet into Newburg dolomite, a type of limestone. The production wells will go as deep as 6,100 feet, according to state permits, with horizontal legs stretching up to 8,400 feet.
The two drilling pads for the production wells — each about 400 feet square — are about 4,000 feet apart on opposite sides of Silica Sand Road, which separates Windham and Nelson townships.
“It’s just crazy,” neighbor Leah Cain, 54, said of all the activity and the plans for more drilling. “A lot can happen, and we’re fearful.
“What’s happening here is not in the public interest. … “Why are things moving so fast? Why the rush?” Cain asked.
Neighbors are not clear why the two kinds of wells are being located so close together and they “are starting to feel like guinea pigs in an experimental process,” said Trish Harness, 36, of Garrettsville.
“We’re hoping that ODNR will balance the interests of neighbors along with health and safety. We’re not NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”). But we have major concerns about what’s happening.
“Nowhere else in Ohio do you find so many injection wells clustered together. Nowhere else in the world will you find injection wells on top of frack well laterals,” Harness said.
A major issue of concern is “well integrity” with that many wells so close together, said Vanessa Pesec of the Northeast Ohio Gas and Oil Accountability Project, a grass-roots group based in Lake County.
Teresa Mills of Columbus, a spokeswoman for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and of No Frack Ohio, said the key is limiting the underground pressure in the injection wells to assure there are no problems underground.
Neighbors are asking ODNR to hold a public hearing on the drilling requests.
Agency spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans said the state printed two notices and held a public-comment period on the proposed injection wells. ODNR probably will conduct what it calls a public information meeting, but no date has been set, she said.
What is happening in northeast Portage County might be a harbinger of what is to come to the Utica shale formations all over eastern Ohio.
Fifteen of the 33 permits for new injection wells pending before the ODNR are for sites within a half-mile of production wells, mostly because Ohio has tens of thousands of existing wells, state geologist Tom Tomastik said.
The only state rule is that there must be 100 feet between a production well and an injection well, he said.
State law requires a review of all existing wells within a half-mile radius of proposed injection wells.
Tomastik said there is at least one place in Ohio where a production well sits close to an injection well: in Ashtabula County.
Putting injection wells close to production wells “makes economic sense” for drillers, said Jeffrey C. Dick, chairman of the geology department at Youngstown State University.
“It’s a possible new trend,” he said.
Drillers could run a small pipeline from the production well to the nearby injection well and eliminate the need to haul waste by truck, he said.
At present, Ohio has 178 operating injection wells, mostly in eastern Ohio. Another 15 wells have been permitted but are not operating.
The state figure includes 16 injection wells each in Portage and Stark counties — sharing the top spot in Ohio.
In 2011, Ohio’s injection wells handled an estimated 12.5 million 42-gallon barrels of waste — nearly 525 million gallons. More than half of it was imported from Pennsylvania.
Ohio tightened its rules on injection wells following a series of small earthquakes around Youngstown in 2010 and 2011. The injection well was shut down in late 2011.
The new permanent rules went into effect Oct. 1. Ohio has not approved new injection wells and is reviewing all pending applications under the new rules.
Ohio’s rules require that all briny production waste from drilling be pumped into underground rock formations for disposal.
Daniels said it is highly unlikely that the production wells would interfere with the injection wells, or vice versa.
The two types of wells are separated by significant vertical space with numerous layers of impermeable rock in between, he said.
The injection wells would have to be adequately spaced from each other to ensure that the underground pressure doesn’t interfere with the injection operations, he said.
The state, Daniels said, would not approve the plan if the injection wells were too close together.
Tomastik said the distance between the injection wells in Nelson and Windham townships appears adequate.
He also noted that Hard Rock Drilling filed its applications for the injection wells before Mountaineer Keystone filed for the production wells.
This is significant, because it means Mountaineer Keystone must cement its production well casings from 4,000 feet to 4,200 feet below ground back to the surface as a safety measure under a state-imposed requirement.
Efforts to reach a spokesman for Mountaineer Keystone were unsuccessful.
The Soinski property was selected because it offered easy access off state Route 82, had few neighbors and had once been excavated for sand and gravel, said Cutter, whose company is located north of Wooster. He called the underground geology ideal for injection wells.
He said the first two wells will be drilled; the others will be developed in the next five to 10 years.
Cutter said no deal has been completed, but the Nelson and Windham injection wells might be operated by Ray Pander Trucking, a company based in Portage County’s Palmrya Township.
That firm has been involved in helping Cutter develop plans for the Portage injection wells, spokesman R.C. Pander said. His company operates eight injection wells in Ohio.
Such a concentration of wells is “not unusual and I have zero concerns,” Pander said.
Baker, who lives near the drilling rig, disagrees.
“I can’t believe that this is really happening to us. … This shouldn’t happen to us or anyone else.”
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.