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Barging Radioactive Frack Waste Threatens the Ohio River

A dangerous new threat has come to the Ohio River. According to news reports, the DeepRock Disposal Solutions barge terminal, located near Marietta, Ohio, is scheduled to begin offloading barges filled with hazardous, radioactive fracking wastewater and condensate in the first quarter of 2021.

Fracking wastewater can contain a mixture of toxic chemical additives, heavy metals, carcinogens, and even radioactive materials. Naturally occurring radioactive isotopes in the Marcellus Shale’s salt deposits can be brought to the surface along with produced water during fracking operations. Radium-226 and radium-228, both found in brine waste, are known carcinogens and can lead to bone, liver, and breast cancer in humans if levels are high enough, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, frack waste contains secret chemicals which could be extremely toxic to humans and aquatic life.

The potential for a spill is enormous, and the consequences could be catastrophic. A single barge can hold approximately 24,000 barrels of toxic, radioactive waste, and there is no limit to the number of toxic barges that could be traversing the Ohio River each day.

If industry expansion is any indication, barge transport of fracking waste could soon explode in capacity. The DeepRock facility is just one of a network of proposed barge terminals located on the Ohio River, including the 4K Industrial Frac Water Supply and Recycling Technologies in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and the Fountain Quail Energy Services facility in Meigs County, Ohio. The former Koppers plant in Follansbee, WV was recently purchased by Empire Diversified Energy to be repurposed into a barge loading facility, so we are concerned this site could be turned into another frack waste processing and disposal site as well.

A spill at any point along the transportation chain could be catastrophic. Thousands of barrels of hazardous wastewater would be loaded and unloaded onto barges every day at each of these facilities. And transporting any substance via barge comes with a risk of spillage. In 2014, a barge spilled approximately 5,000 gallons of oil into the Ohio River 20 miles southeast of Cincinnati, closing a 15-mile stretch of the river to traffic and causing a strong odor of oil. In 2017, a barge holding more than 300,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer broke in half just south of Cincinnati, threatening the city’s water supply downstream. A year later, seven coal-carrying barges hit the Clark Memorial Bridge near downtown Louisville, releasing thousands of tons of coal into local drinking water supplies.

The sheer volume of wastewater transport all but guarantees an accident is likely to occur in the near future. As production and transport ramps up and extreme weather makes the river increasingly more difficult to traverse, the question becomes not if, but when. And when it does, we don’t know which agencies would be responsible for responding to such a spill or whether those agencies could successfully collaborate to address the serious environmental and public health hazards that would accompany serious spillage.

Even worse, in the event of a spill, regional water treatment facilities are unequipped to fully decontaminate drinking water supplies. Unlike coal or oil, the radioactive chemicals in fracking waste cannot currently be filtered out with the technology and equipment available to facilities in the Ohio River Valley. We don’t yet know how consequential radioactivity in our wastewater could be, but we don’t want to find out.

Where is the waste going?

As a result of Ohio’s loose regulations on wastewater injection, Ohio has become the preeminent dumping ground for fracking waste in the Ohio Valley Region. In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delegated primacy enforcement authority of all injection wells in the State of Ohio to the Ohio Division of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management (DOGRM), allowing the state to bypass federal wastewater regulations. As a result, the state has permitted more than 226 active fracking waste injection wells, many of which are located near fracking operations above the Marcellus shale.

Conversely, Pennsylvania, which requires federal sign-off on any new injection wells, has only 16 wells. Much of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste is exported across state borders, and the majority of it ends up in Ohio. Nearly half of the more than 38 million barrels of waste injected in Ohio disposal wells in 2017 came from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to the ODNR. The latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection shows that, in 2020, Pennsylvania exported more than 258,000,000 gallons of liquid frack waste to Ohio and more than 150,000,000 to West Virginia.

Barge transport of frack waste could mean even more out-of-state wastewater is injected in Ohio communities. Historically, the waste has been transported via tanker truck, but barging could revolutionize wastewater transport by reducing shipping costs. Industry sources claim that a single barge can carry the equivalent of 220 truckloads of wastewater. This would mean even more toxic, radioactive frack waste facilities could be built on the Ohio River, with injection wells that can leak and spills that can get into the river, a drinking water source for 5 million people.

According to the Marcellus Drilling News, “barging in the Appalachian Basin is the future of production water transportation. Not only will it help drastically lower the all-in cost of water disposal for our current operators but barging also provides even more flexibility and convenience due to their unsettling distances from current disposal facilities.”

More waste transport means more injection wells

As more fracking waste is transported into Ohio, the state will likely have to expand its disposal capacity. But the more hazardous injection wells that are constructed, the more local residents are placed at risk. The full extent of the dangers of fracking waste injection is still not well understood. Injection wells have been known to leach toxic waste into aquifers, contaminating communities’ drinking water supplies. In January, a gas well in Ohio’s Noble County erupted, spewing 30,000 barrels of radioactive waste and killing fish in a nearby tributary. According to Ohio EPA records, it was the seventh documented frack waste spill in the county since 2017.

Recently, injection wells near the Ohio River migrated into a producing well. The migratory pathways are not well characterized and understood, so if frack waste migrates out of the injection zone, how would the source be identified and remediated?

The injection of fracking waste has also been linked to a sizable uptick in seismic activity. Shooting high volumes of liquids deep underground disturbs the physical makeup of underground shale and rock layers, and we simply don’t know the full extent of the consequences. A 2015 report found, “an unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the U.S. mid-continent began in 2009,” near the beginning of the Appalachian fracking boom.

According to the report’s authors, “Many of these earthquakes have been documented as induced by wastewater injection…We find that the entire increase in earthquake rate is associated with fluid injection wells.” Before 2011, no earthquakes had ever been recorded in the region.

Take Action!

The barging of fracking waste endangers communities up and down the Ohio River, and especially Ohioans, who could see the number of injection wells in the state increase as barge transportation allows for massive amounts of toxic, radioactive wastewater to be transported to the Ohio side of the river. We object to the barging of frack waste on the Ohio River and to the resultant buildout of injection wells and frack waste processing and disposal facilities. Sign this petition to object to the shipment of frack waste on the Ohio River and prevent Ohio from becoming the industry’s dumping ground for toxic, radioactive frack waste.

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