ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Ohio has been conducting its own investigation into whether underground waste wells are causing a recent surge in quakes there. The waste water is being shipped to Ohio from Pennsylvania, which is in the midst of a natural gas drilling boom. As Scott Detrow of member station WITF reports, Ohio regulators are looking for a way to cut down the risk of potential quakes.
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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: What do you do with a truckload of salty, chemical-laden water? If you can't recycle it, the Environmental Protection Agency prefers you dump it deep underground, into an injection well. That's what's happening here in Ohio, as a truck unloads natural gas drilling wastewater at an Akron-area site. This scene repeats itself throughout the day at the six injection wells R.C. Pander's company operates.
R.C. PANDER: Then we've got a bag filter vessel here that once they hook up, they unload...
DETROW: This waste is a mix of water, sand, salt and chemicals. It's what's left over from hydraulic fracturing. Injection wells like this one have been in Ohio for decades. Last year, Ohio well operators took in 12 million gallons of drilling waste and shot it into porous rock formations. Pander's wells take in between four and 5,000 barrels of waste each day, though the number is on the rise.
PANDER: And that goes back to fracking.
DETROW: Before, drillers would use something like 15,000 gallons of water to frack an oil well in central Ohio. Natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale can use up to four million gallons at a time. Many Western Pennsylvania drillers are sending their waste to Ohio, since Pennsylvania doesn't have the geology to drill its own injection wells. Ohio netted more than $1.5 million in fees from the practice last year. But the Ohio wells have come under scrutiny lately, because one of them may have caused 12 earthquakes last year. Diane Slender was at her home near Youngstown the afternoon of December 31st.
DIANE SLENDER: And I was in the bedroom and this big ba-boom. My husband thought I fell. And he's like, are you all right?
DETROW: Linda DeProfo works alongside Slender in a Girard, Ohio, candy shop. She felt the quake, too.
LINDA DEPROFO: We heard the boom, and the front window was shaking back and forth. And we didn't know what it was, until, you know, took a couple of minutes and then we realized it was another earthquake.
DETROW: The New Year's Eve quake, a 4.0, was the second within a week and the 12th since March. Ohio's Department of Natural Resources says a deep injection well likely caused the tremors. It turns out, the drillers may have been injecting brine and fracking waste directly onto a fault line nobody knew was there. Rick Simmers, who heads the Department of Natural Resource's drilling division, maintains injection wells are the safest way to get rid of drilling waste.
RICK SIMMERS: If indeed it did cause the earthquake, the rarity of that kind of occurrence is so great. And other methodologies can be used to help eliminate even that rare potential, that it's still a very safe process.
DETROW: The state has released a preliminary report on the quakes and is moving ahead with new regulations. The Youngstown well was more than 9,000 feet deep - much deeper than most other injection sites. Ohio won't let wells drill to that level anymore. That's because the deeper you go, the more powerful the rock formation can be, if it has a fault. Ohio will also require more tests before new wells are drilled, to make sure the ground is stable. The state has put an unofficial moratorium on permits for new injection wells, as it investigates the quakes. And that frustrates R.C. Pander, who operates those Akron-area wells.
PANDER: If you've got a car that has a problem with it, does that mean we should take all the cars off the road and go back to horse and buggy? And we need to address the issue at hand. In this case, we need to find out what's going on with that well and take corrective action.
DETROW: But isolated or not, the earthquakes have people spooked. Diane Slender, the woman who was at home during the earthquake, says she's still skeptical.
SLENDER: Everybody wants the jobs. But then you have to worry about, you know, what comes along with it. So I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens.
DETROW: People are waiting for a final report from state regulators, as well as the next earthquake. For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
SIEGEL: That story came to us from StateImpact, a collaboration between NPR and member stations, exploring how state issues affect people's lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.