Ohio annually processes thousands of tons of radioactive waste from hydraulic-fracturing, sending it through treatment facilities, injecting it into its old and unused gas wells and dumping it in landfills. Historically, the handling and disposal of that waste was barely regulated, with few requirements for how its potential contamination would be gauged, or how and where it could be transported and stored.
With the business of fracking waste only growing, legislators in 2013 had the chance to decide how best to monitor the state’s vast amounts of toxic material, much of it being trucked into Ohio from neighboring states.
But despite calls to require that the waste be rigorously tested for contamination, Gov. John Kasich and the state legislature signed off on measures that require just a fraction of the waste to be subjected to such oversight. The great majority of the byproducts creating during the drilling process – the water and rock unearthed – still do not have to be tested at all.
As well, the legislature, lobbied by the fracking industry, undid the governor’s bid to have the testing of the waste done by the state’s Department of Health — the agency acknowledged by many to possess the most expertise with radioactive material. The testing is now the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources, the agency that oversees the permitting and inspection of oil and gas drilling sites, but that has no track record for dealing with radioactive waste.
The legislators acted with little in the way of public debate, and the new regulations they adopted appeared deep inside a 4,000-page state budget bill. As a result, both the measures first proposed by Kasich and those ultimately signed into law have infuriated environmentalists and residents with concerns about the risks of fracking in their state.
A ProPublica review of the legislature’s actions shows that just a handful of parties testified before the oversight committees charged with examining the pros and cons of the proposed regulations. And interviews with legislative staffers make clear that the final language of the regulations, including changes that scaled back two measures proposed by the governor, was inserted into the budget bill at the last minute.
And so today, to the surprise of much of the public as well as some elected officials, Ohio’s oversight of fracking waste remains much as it had been – limited and controversial.
“It has the potential to leave a toxic legacy that could turn much of Ohio into potential superfund sites,” said Alison Auciello of the Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy organization.
Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said existing regulations made mandatory testing of fracking waste unnecessary and said his group had pushed to limit the Department of Health’s role because it would have created bureaucratic problems rather than effective monitoring.
The state’s oil and gas interests supports “regulation that directly enhances protection of the public interest while allowing industry to efficiently do its job,” he said. “We do not support regulation that is designed more to placate people or somehow make them feel better.”
Regulations for the disposal of fracking waste vary from state to state. In some, like Texas, regulation is virtually non-existent. But others have taken more aggressive measures to safeguard the public. For instance, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have agreed to identify and quantify, through formal testing, the radioactive threat and plan to adopt protections accordingly. Already, they have installed alarms in landfills to check if the contaminated waste being received violates the state limits already in place. And in West Virginia, legislators enacted a law requiring the construction of separate, lined pits for the storage of radioactive fracking waste.
Oil and gas drilling is big business in Ohio, responsible for tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investments by companies eager to mine the state’s natural resources. An economic study conducted by industry groups in 2011 forecasted that the business would add over 200,000 jobs in coming years. Kasich has declared Ohio an eager partner with the industry.