Bob Downing

Two groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against an injection well in northern Portage County for allegedly accepting millions of gallons of drilling wastes improperly.

Concerned Citizens Ohio and the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice contend that the Kovach injection well at 9795-9899 Coit Road in Shalersville Township has improperly received wastes for years to be injected into rock formations underground.

The two groups are asking the U.S. EPA to issue an immediate order to stop further injection.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources disagreed with the activists and said the injection well is legally operating, said spokesman Matt Eiselstein on Monday.

The injection well was permitted by the agency in 1979 to boost oil-gas production from two nearby wells. It was what is called an “enhanced recovery well” with the liquids going into the well pushing underground oil into the production wells.

The problem is that one production well in Shalersville Township (the Kotonowski No. 5 well) ceased operations in 1985 and the other (the Hawkins-Kabat well) has not produced since 2011, yet the injection well is still taking drilling wastes, the two groups said.

ODNR records show that the injection well has gotten more than 34 million gallons of drilling wastes from Ohio and other states since 1982, including 2.5 million gallons since 2011, the activists said.

The state should have halted injection at the Coit Road site after the production wells ceased operations, they said.

“Injection wells are dumps for oil and gas hazardous waste,” said Mary Greer, coordinator of Concerned Citizens Ohio. “Residents are shocked to find out that this well appears to have operated as a disposal well without a permit in our county for years.”

Such wells pose a threat to aquifers from leaks, and residents of Shalersville and Mantua townships are at risk, Greer said.

“Unsupervised, unregulated illegal wells have got to be stopped,” she said.

“The ODNR has not followed its own rules,” said Teresa Mills of Columbus, a spokeswoman for the health, environment and justice center. “By ODNR’s own rules, this well is illegal.”

State rules say that a well that does not assist in the production of oil is no longer operating as an enhanced recovery well and must be plugged, she said.

“The well’s illegal status is the result of the lack of ODNR oversight,” Mills said. “Since this well is not enhancing any production well, it is functioning as an illegal injection disposal well. ODNR is on notice of this violation and should have acted to prevent it years ago.”

ODNR said the injection well is legally operating. One of the two production wells is plugged but the second is listed on state records as being capable of production, even though little or no production is occurring, Eiselstein said.

“This production well remains ‘capable’ of producing oil and gas and was listed as ‘producing’ every day in 2013,” he said. “Capable is a matter of functional success, not production success. The fact that the well was not successful in production efforts does not render it ‘incapable of producing oil and gas.’?”

He added, “The Kovach No. 1 injection well continues to service the Hawkins-Kabat Unit No. 1 production well.”

Eiselstein said, “ODNR’s goal is to try and ensure that Ohio’s oil and gas wells are safely constructed so they provide the best protections for our environment and the citizens of Ohio.”

Taking the complaint to the U.S. EPA “is the only option left to citizens,” said Mills, who handles field operations in Ohio for the group that was founded in 1981 by Lois Gibbs, who was involved in the Love Canal landfill in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Ohio law does not provide any mechanism for residents to force enforcement action on injection wells by state officials, she said.

The U.S. EPA oversees Ohio’s management of injection wells.

Injection wells are Ohio’s preferred method of safely getting rid of drilling wastes.

Portage County has 18 injection wells and was No. 2 in Ohio with a 2013 volume of nearly 2 million 42-gallon barrels. Only Trumbull County (Warren) took in more drilling wastes with about 2.3 million barrels.

In 2013, Ohio took in 8,109,300 barrels from Ohio drillers and 8,277,964 barrels from out-of-state drillers.

Ohio cannot block such out-of-state shipments because they are interstate commerce protected by the U.S. Constitution.

In May, Ohio had 201 operating injection wells with another 34 permitted but not yet built.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.