(Warren County, PA)— The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to push forward with the permitting of two proposed Underground Injection Control (UIC) wells in Columbus Township, Warren County, Pennsylvania despite considerable public protest and concern over permit deficiencies. EPA Region III officials approved permits earlier this week for the Bittinger #1 and #4 wells to start receiving highly-pressurized injections of shale gas wastewater, placing area sources of drinking water in a contamination danger zone.
Corry resident Bill Peiffer, who has been actively advocating on behalf of the local community, has serious concerns regarding the potential for groundwater contamination, stating, “The proposed injection wells represent a compelling danger to local groundwater resources, as well as an immediate threat to the quality of life in this area.” Whether the Bittinger wells can withstand the proposed high-pressure injections of oil and gas industry wastes is questionable: they are more than 25 years old, originally designed for gas extraction not waste injection, and the pressure test results of the wells have not been released to the public. The advanced age of the wells greatly increases the potential for structural failure, which could result in shale gas wastewater ending up in local aquifers.
Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action stated, “EPA Region III has conducted a minimal review of the potential for problems with these waste disposal wells. Given the highly toxic nature of gas drilling wastewater, we expect EPA to thoroughly investigate these permits which can put the public health and environment at risk. We already have leaking waste disposal wells in Pennsylvania – EPA should be giving this type of disposal more scrutiny, not less.” EPA permitted UIC wells in Clearfield County have had to be shut down due to problems with drilling wastewater leaks.
An expert report analyzing all publicly available documents related to the permits found significant errors and deficiencies in the applications and permits, confirming the community’s concerns. Speaking from 20 years of experience with UIC disposal wells, geologist Philip Grant expresses doubt that the permit’s proposed semi-annual monitoring plan will catch well integrity failures before the community’s drinking water is affected. He writes: “Any incorrectly plugged undocumented boreholes or natural transmissive conduits (faults, fractures) could endanger shallow [aquifers] before the proposed monitoring program results would initiate cessation of injection well operations.” This means that an underground aquifer could be exposed to contamination for months before a problem would be discovered through an inspection at the well site.
Arnowitt commented, “Exposing sensitive groups, like pregnant women or small infants, to toxic wastewater contamination for up to six months is not acceptable. Companies that discharge this same wastewater into rivers have to report every month. Injection well operators should be no different.”
EPA Region III has mostly taken the permit applications from Bear Lake Properties, LLC at face value and has not done a serious review of its contents to impose meaningful safety measures in the Bittinger permits. This is supported by Grant’s report, which found potential errors in calculations in the permits. These errors have potentially excluded a number of drinking water wells from EPA’s consideration in the permitting process. Grant states, “None of the USEPA calculations have been provided for public comment or review, which brings into question the independent nature of the USEPA review.” Even more egregious, Grant could not replicate the results for certain calculations using the same input values as contained in the application. If EPA had not conducted such a careless review of the application, this glaring error certainly would have been noticed.
EPA Region III’s cursory review risks setting bad precedent at a time when expanding the use of UIC wells for the purposes of disposing shale gas wastewater in Pennsylvania is expected. The Bittinger wells are the only commercial facilities out of eight UIC wells in Pennsylvania accepting shale gas wastewater, but two more are already proposed in Elk and Clearfield counties. The risk of drinking water contamination by shale gas wastewater and methane in Pennsylvania will only increase if EPA Region III continues with such lax scrutiny of UIC permits.
Download this release here.
Philip Grant’s report is available for download here.