Oil & Gas Companies Spreading Toxic Brine Across Southeastern Ohio

Oil and gas companies in southeastern Ohio have found a cheap way to dispose of their toxic wastewater by having it spread all over the air, water and soil of Ohio Appalachian counties, cities and towns.

“Brine” is dangerous, and there’s a lot of it.  It’s a mixture of water and salt, plus toxic chemicals leftover from oil & gas extraction.  Nationwide, there’s enough to flood Manhattan nearly shin high, every day, says journalist Justin Noble in an article for Rolling Stone titled “America’s Radioactive Secret.”

At most wells, Noble says, there’s much more brine produced than oil or gas, as much as 10 times more.  It collects in tanks, and trucks haul it to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of, by being shot back into the earth.

Oil & gas companies in Southeastern Ohio are disposing of their toxic wastewater by spreading it all over the air, water and soil of Appalachia. Credit: Phil and Jo Schiffbauer, FlickrCC

States like Ohio, one of the pre-eminent brine-producing states, have been entrusted with setting laws for dealing with the brine.  The Ohio Revised Code allows local governments to spread wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells (also called vertical or shallow wells) on “roads, streets, highways, and other similar land surfaces” to control dust or ice.

“Brine” is cheaper than more expensive deicers and dust suppressants.  Citizen activists in Coshocton County in southeastern Ohio are fighting back.

From their website RadiumValley.org, according to records submitted to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), from 2014 to 2018, 32,083 barrels (more than 1.3 million gallons) of wastewater from gas and oil wells were spread on public land and private roads and properties in Coshocton County.

The damage done by the brine “It scares the hell out of me,” says Nick Teti, who lives in Coshocton County with his wife, Barb, near the small community of Cooperdale.

Tim Kettler, 71 and his wife Roberta have been married for 34 years and have one son Malcomb, 30.  They live in Monroe Township, Warsaw Coshocton County, Ohio.  Kettler and his wife built their own home from materials from their own property, including stone for the building foundation and basement walls and logs for lumber and they sawed for lumber.  It took them three years.

Kettler says there has never been proper wastewater disposal planning for the oil and gas wastewaters being generated now.  What was thought of as benign saltwater is radioactive-laden toxic waste, and former accepted methods of disposal are now known to be egregious acts of pollution.

ODNR continues to allow widespread use of oil and gas wastewater as a deicer and dust suppressant in its guidelines for local authorities.  Oil-field brine, called AquaSalina is a waste product rather than a commodity, so economic incentives to spread brine sparingly may be lacking, according to the RadiumValley.org website.  Indiscriminate application could cause contamination of surface or groundwaters.

Should the wells be shut down?  Kettler said there is no doubt the fossil fuel industry is living on borrowed time.  “I think a moratorium on drilling until a waste plan is developed isn’t out of the question.  Necessity is the mother of invention; we already invented the alternative technologies that solve the climate crisis; we simply need to prioritize and fund them immediately.”

He continued, “As a wastewater professional of 35 years I am incensed that the work of industry professionals is being undone by air pollution from other sources; pollution without regard for the damage that has and will occur.  As a person of faith with particular regard for the natural rights of the Earth and responsibility for stewardship I work daily with this thought on my mind … “What will I do to undo the damage done?”

Using a public records request, Ohio environmental groups got data for 118 wastewater samples collected from conventional oil and gas wells.  All but three samples (97 percent) had combined radium levels of radium-226 and 228 that were above Ohio’s legal limits for discharge into the environment.  The averaged combined concentration of radium-226 and 228 in the samples was more than 10 times Ohio’s legal limited for discharge in the environment and more than 252 times the EPA’s limit for drinking water.

Kettler’s family owns a small business, a wastewater services company, called Action Septic Service Inc., servicing residential, commercial and industrial wastewater treatment facilities.  They provide Certified Ohio EPA wastewater operations for on-site wastewater systems; all issues around kinds of wastewater, including oil and gas wastewater are of great interest to his company and his family.

Brine can get on your clothes and all over your body.  Some brine samples were tested to be 900 times the safe discharge limit for radioactivity.  “THIS DUST IS EVERYWHERE!”  Kettler said.  “We have asked the township not to spread along our property and so far as we know they have complied, but the spray is up to the property line which can flood into our pond drainage.”

The Kettlers use a spring-fed surface water farm pond for their domestic water supply.  It’s located downhill from the ridge the road runs on and is threatened by road run-off during extreme rain events; the kind that are more commonplace every day.

Kettler’s positions on the pollution are well-known in his community, he adds.  His wife and he, together with Nick Teti are the incorporators of Coshocton Environmental and Community Awareness Inc., a 501c3 Ohio non-profit corporation for the education and advancement of environmental awareness around oil and gas-related issues in their community.

What should the state government authorities do differently?  Kettler says all primacy over oil and gas wastewater regulation in Ohio must be handed over to the U.S. EPA.  For the time being, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is the chief marketer of oil and gas resources in the state as well as the regulator of all aspects of the Exploration and Production of oil and gas in the state.

“We are caught in a classic fox guarding the hen house scenario,” Kettler said in his written responses.

Most people in Coshocton County don’t know much about the toxic dangers of industrial waste/brine.  “The perception is of benign salt water” he finished.

Nick Teti has been married to Barb for 50 years.  He is 72 years old.  They have two sons, Ryan and Daniel, who live respectively in Coshocton and Dayton, Ohio.

Teti is a retired public school teacher who served for 37 years.  He and his wife own a home on 77 acres of farmland and woods.  He responded to a number of questions put to him by a reporter.

Teti thinks the “brine” has been misnamed in a branding effort by the oil and gas companies to portray it as harmless and benign.  It’s important, he says, to understand that it’s actually radioactive oil-field waste being generated nationwide by the billions of gallons by fracking carbon-bearing shale plays to produce methane gas and liquid petroleum products.

It can get on your clothes, he explains, and all over your body.  It’s loaded with radium levels far exceeding the legal discharge limit established by the U.S. EPA.  The body treats radium like calcium – it deposits the brine in our bones.  Once there, it bombards the bone’s surrounding tissue with radioactive particles causing tumors, mutations and destroys cells.  It has a half-life of 1,600 years.  It doesn’t go away once it enters the environment, he added.

Teti said the drinking water sources in rural counties are very vulnerable to pollutants spread on the ground or airborne as dust from the roads.  They are shallow wells, ponds, creeks, springs, rooftop catchments, rivers and lakes.

The willingness to let a business poison a community for profit has become entrenched in our economic system.  There is a need for the fracking industry to get rid of its enormous liquid waste stream and still remain profitable, Teti said.

Not many people, doctors or local officials know about the toxic dangers of industrial waste/brine.  Teti says they sent letters to every member of the committee that dealt with the brine bill, to their local health department and to their township trustees.

The brine bill is happening in the following way.  Oil and gas companies are asking for a limit on the amount of AquaSalina, a deicer made from processed brine that can be in their products – 20,000 picocuries (pCi/L) of radium 226 and 15,000 picocuries of radium 228.  The federal radium limit is 60 pCi/L, the 228 limit is also 60 picocuries.  The bill, introduced in January of 2021, is in committee in both the Ohio house and senate, and is not moving.  Theresa Mills’ citizens’ group, the state Buckeye Environmental Network, hopes it gets stopped right there.  But the oil and gas companies still intend to produce AquaSalina and sell it as a commodity to other states.

Julie Weatherington-Rice lives in Weatherington, Ohio, just north of Columbus in Franklin County, with her family, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  Her husband died four years ago.  She has a Ph.D. in Soil Science from Ohio State University’s College of Natural Resources and the Environment, which she said she completed in 2004.

She has been working on environmental issues since the first Earth Day in 1970.  After a few career stops, Weatherington spent a couple of terms on a board to Ohio Department of Health on water and wastewater.  In 1986, she was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Oil & Gas Regulatory Review.  That same year, she went to work for Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants Inc., a firm of geologists and engineers internationally known for their work in ground water protection and development.  Weatherington still works there part-time at age 73 as their senior scientist.

She has been working on oil and gas contamination of surface and ground water since the early 1980s.  She says oil and gas are probably the largest single threat of contamination that exists in the eastern half of the state.

She said the spreading of brine “absolutely must be stopped and never should have been started in the first place.”  In Ohio, they have had documentation since the 1980s that “brine” production waters are toxic, hazardous and can kill you.  They are full of heavy and radioactive metals, but the salts alone are enough to destroy water supplies and render soils too salty to grow anything.

“Brine is 10 times saltier than ocean water,” she explained.  Salinity of the soils in the Southwest US are rendering them unable to support agriculture at levels lower than what is in brine.  The heavy and radioactive metals bind to clay minerals and organic materials where they can become dust which you can breathe or it can fall all over your garden, crop fields or pastures.  The radioactive element radium can dissolve and mobilize in water, both surface and ground water; its daughter – radon gas is the second most common cause of lung cancer, after smoking; all of the salts are a problem.

Also, virtually all oil and gas wells being drilled these days are fracked so the brine from vertical wells, which is permitted to be spread, can have all kinds of additives as well.

We have learned over the last few years that vertical brine is far more radioactive than we ever imagined.  The “hottest well” tested by ODNR is owned by Kent State University and has a combined radium-226/228 level of over 9,500 pCi/L.  The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) the level of brine that is allowed in the public water supply for drinking water is 5 pCi/L, the allowable level to be released into the environment is 60 ra-226 and 60 ra-228 pCi/L.  Of the 151 samples ODNR ran in that study, only one well was low enough to meet the 60/60 thresholds.  Why is that permitted?  Because Ohio doesn’t specifically forbid it and there is a Federal loophole that allows this to happen.   Oil, gas and coal are excluded from most toxic and hazardous control requirements because they are “natural.”

In reality, they are also excluded because there is so much waste from these activities that no one knows what to do with them and no one can afford to dispose of them properly, so they just get dumped.  Heavy and radioactive metals are “forever” contaminants, she says.  We just hope they get distributed enough and be diluted enough that they will not be that harmful.

Regardless of its source, radon has a ½ life of 1,600 years.  So if you took that “brine” from the Kent State well and put it in a tank and held it until it met the 60/60 levels, you would have to store it for about 11,500 years before you could spread it.  No one wants to hold it for that long, so it just gets spread.

ODNR declared that the brine has a “beneficial” use for ice and dust and allowed it to be spread on the roads, because they didn’t know what else to do with it. It’s the easiest solution.  People have been dumping stuff over the hill and into the creek for as long as mankind has been on Earth, Weatherington-Rice noted with disgust.  If it’s necessary, they are declared Class II injection wells, and those are awful; “They only ‘work’ if they fail.”

ODNR can only do what the administration in power lets them do, she says.  There are good people at ODNR; there have been for a long, long time; they didn’t have to run the 151 brine samples.  They tried to stop the brine spreading in 1985; the Legislature wouldn’t let them, she adds.

“The only way things will change in Ohio is if there is a new Legislature and Governor who do not take money from the oil and gas industry.  Until that happens I don’t expect things to change.  I know I sound cynical but after 50+ years, it’s hard not to be.”

“If I were ODNR I could do no more than they are doing unless I were freed by the Ohio House, Senate and Governor because the current Republicans were changed to Democrats.  ODNR is being as cooperative as they can be and hoping against hope that citizens will bail out the state.  We have all the scientific and engineering knowledge we need to address the situation … stop pumping the oil and gas, but not the political will.  Until we get the political will, there will be no change.”

“It’s up to the voters to turn this around.”

We are already transitioning away from coal.  But shifting a whole economy and a whole country, let alone a whole Earth, is a hard shift, and we have to all want to do it, Weatherington-Rice says.  We should start by banning brine spreading on Ohio roads; we have to start somewhere.

“As much as I hate the wells, I hate the brine spreading worse.”  We should stop the brine spreading right now, stop production as soon as absolutely possible and then we can shut down the injection wells.  We only recover less than 10 percent of what is down there as we muck up the formations so we may never be able to go back down there again if our science/engineering gets better.

“We can heat, cool, cook and travel with wind and solar energy, tidal surges, hydro-electric, tapping steam, and on and on and on.  Oil and gas is so in the 19th century, and we are in the 21st.  We can and must do better, she says.

When asked by a reporter why ODNR has sole, exclusive authority over brine spraying rather than the US EPA, which might do a better job of not spreading it all over the environment of the people of Coshocton, Athens and other counties in southeastern Ohio and making people sick and spreading brine all over their land, lawns, rivers, streams, lakes and soil, an ODNR spokesperson said only that EPA gave ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management sole and exclusive authority in 1983.

The agency regulates Class II Disposal Wells.

Spokesperson Stephanie O’Grady further said that her Agency operates an effective regulatory program that meets or exceeds federal standards and protects public health, safety and the environment.  She added they take their responsibility seriously and that they do it through a “robust” permitting process, regular inspections and enforcement.  They’ve also updated a draft rule that enhances this already effective program.

Nobody at the American Petroleum Institute (the trade association oil and gas companies in southeast Ohio ask to talk to the media for them) returned repeated phone calls and emails for comment on this story.