A correction has been appended
Felicia Mettler never saw herself taking a stand for an environmental cause. But when injection well activity began in Torch, a few miles from her Coolville home, she weighed the impact on her family and the land around her. “As a mother, it’s my job to protect my kids, and I don’t want to move,” Mettler, 45, a stay-at-home mother of three, said. “I’m on land that is family land. My mother, I could throw a rock at her house. My brother lives right next door.” Injection wells are used to dispose of the chemical waste that can result from fracking. Mettler and other local residents are concerned whether the three injection wells in Torch — a 30-minute drive from Athens — will affect the environment and people’s health.
Injection wells are involved in the process of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, wherein a mixture of liquids are pumped deep underground to break up rock formations that contain natural gas or oil so those resources can be extracted.
“My mother-in-law and father-in-law live in Torch, they live 1,800 feet from the injection well.” Mettler said. “What are we breathing? What are going to be the health effects?”
In recent years, residents in Athens and across the state have voiced worries regarding fracking and the waste that can result from it. Most recently, those concerns have centered around potential fracking in the nearby Wayne National Forest after the Bureau of Land Management auctioned forest land that could be used for fracking on Dec. 13, according to a previous Post report.
Fracking remains a controversial topic, with some championing its energy and economic potential and others fearing its effects on water sources, forests, air quality and public health.
Protesters hold signs out to drivers at an anti-fracking protest at the Wayne National Forest headquarters along Route 33 on Dec. 10.
But the drilling technique is a somewhat recent development in the decades-long history of land use in Southeast Ohio. And when it comes to people like Mettler who see the issue up-close, the reality is clear: Fracking isn’t going away anytime soon.
“If I could shut all (wells) down, I would,” she said. “But in reality, I know that that is not going to happen, so I will push for other things.”
Southeast Ohio’s early settlers first started extracting resources from the land in the early 19th century, when people mined iron ore and cut down trees to make charcoal, Ohio University geography professor Geoffrey Buckley said.
In the mid-19th century, coal production in Ohio began to increase, continuing into the 20th century until it peaked in the ’70s, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ website.
“We’ve had sort of a long history of extracting resources in our area,” Buckley said. “Really, the peak for a lot of mining was decades ago, and that’s in part due to competition with western coal. But the introduction of the gas industry has really shifted things.”
In Ohio, underground layers of the rock shale hold reserves of natural gas, which can be extracted through wells drilled into the ground, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Wells often use “horizontal drilling,” where the well is initially drilled downward and then across a layer of shale.
“With horizontal drilling, it allows pretty pinpoint accuracy,” Natalie Kruse, associate professor of environmental studies at OU’s Voinovich School, said. “(Companies) can direct that well into whatever rock formation they’re trying to hit.”
Fracking is a technique used to force the natural gas out of the shale, and it became a more common practice in the mid-2000s, Kruse said. A mixture of “water, sand and chemical additives” is injected into the ground at a high pressure to break up the shale and force the natural gas upward, according to the ODNR’s website.
About 1 million oil and gas wells in the U.S. have used hydraulic fracturing since the process first began in the late ’40s, according a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. Fracking accounted for more than 50 percent of U.S. oil production and nearly 70 percent of gas production in 2015.
In recent years, wells have become more efficient by extending farther across shale layers to extract more natural gas from a single well, Jason Trembly, an associate professor of engineering at OU said.
Just as coal has affected people in Southeast Ohio in past decades, natural gas extraction presents similar challenges, Buckley said.
“Both mining coal and also in the gas industry, those tend to be pretty migratory industries.” Buckley said. “So if a new mine (or well) opens up somewhere, that really doesn’t employ many locals.”
Residents like Mettler, however, are more concerned about the impacts of fracking — whether through air or water pollution — on people’s health.
“It is a health issue,” Mettler said. “For me, it doesn’t have anything to do about the industry itself, it’s because it’s not safe.”
Though fracking itself doesn’t occur in Athens County, it occurs in neighboring Washington County, as well as other counties on the eastern side of Ohio, according to the data collection website FracTracker.
“There are a lot of potential costs that don’t get factored into our use of fossil fuels: environmental costs, public health costs, things like that,” Buckley said. “That’s probably one of the things that tend to bring people together (in Southeast Ohio), when it’s extracted right under your nose, and the negative consequences can affect everybody.”
A truck leaves the site of a K&H Partners injection well facility near Route 50 in Troy Township on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.
One notable effect of fracking is on the water that people drink. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report in December stating that fracking practices can impact drinking water resources in “some circumstances.”
Athens County has eight active class II injection wells, according to the ODNR. Those wells are used to dispose of the chemical fluids that results from fracking, whether that be in Ohio or elsewhere.
In the fracking process, the mixture fluid injected into the wells picks up chemicals found in the shale, some of which can be naturally radioactive, Kruse said.
“That (fluid) is separated and trucked to injection wells,” she said. “Injection wells are either converted old oil and gas wells or newly drilled wells.”
The wells then push the fluid underground and away from the well, Kruse said.
“There are a whole lot of potential pitfalls with that,” she said. “We don’t have a great alternative right now that’s cost-effective.”
One of the major impacts of fracking can be on the groundwater, Kruse said, but she cautioned that effects are long-term and uncertain. Nearly 50 percent of Ohioans rely on groundwater as their main source of drinking water, according to an Ohio EPA report published in December 2014.
“We may see some (contamination), but we have no idea when or how bad it’ll be,” she said. “We fear the unknown, and that’s certainly a reasonable fear to have.”
Mettler and other residents founded a group called Torch Can Do in 2015 with the goal of educating residents about injection wells and fracking and pushing for improved legislation, she said.
“When the (injection well) facility was put in, we were not aware of what it was,” she said. “Still so many people don’t know what it is.”
An injection well owned by Petro Quest Inc and C. & P.J. Gerig on River Road in Canaan Township on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.
The Bureau of Land Management’s decision to auction parcels of land for oil and gas purposes in the Wayne National Forest has been met with alarm from activists and residents in the region. Most recently, anti-fracking protesters met at the forest’s headquarters in Nelsonville on Dec. 10 to voice their opposition, according to a previous Post report.
Beginning in 2006, the BLM started allowing its federally-owned oil and gas resources to be available for leasing to companies, according to its website. Approximately 39,000 acres of federally owned minerals have been leased, forest spokesman Gary Chancey said.
“The Wayne has gone through a spasm of this kind of resource extraction in the past,” Buckley said. “A lot of the land that makes up the Wayne National Forest today had been mined for coal and left the land without trees. Only when it became a national forest did those trees come back.”
In October, the Bureau of Land Management released an environmental assessment of the Wayne National Forest that found “no significant impact” from leasing federal land. The recent auction involves land in the forest’s Marietta Unit near the Ohio River.
Sean White, co-owner of Little Fish Brewery, holds a sign that reads "You can't brew clean beer with toxic water!" at an anti-fracking protest at the Wayne National Forest headquarters along Route 33 on Dec. 10.
Before any fracking can occur, oil and gas companies must submit applications for drilling to the Bureau of Land Management and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, BLM spokeswoman Lesley Elser said.
“Those stipulations are intended to mitigate risks to the environment due to ground disturbance,” Elser said. “This whole process could take 4 to 6 months after we receive the (application).”
The Athens County Fracking Action Network, or ACFAN, is one of the main groups involved in protesting fracking in the Wayne National Forest. Members of the group, formed officially in 2012, were active in petitioning officials in 2011 from leasing land for potential fracking, member Heather Cantino said.
The U.S. Forest Service later withdrew a scheduled lease of land for oil and gas purposes after receiving 34 letters of protest from 48 Athens County organizations, according to a previous Post report.
Southeast Ohio is one of many
forested regions across the U.S. where fracking occurs.
“It’s definitely an issue nationwide,” Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council, said. “Communities are concerned about oil and gas development in their areas.”
Many national forests are used for oil and gas purposes like fracking, ranging from Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest to forests in western states like Colorado and California, Mall said.
In 2014, for example, the U.S. Forest Service approved limited fracking in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, according to The New York Times.
“Local communities (in Virginia) were very concerned about impacts on agriculture and recreation,” Mall said. “Those are not necessarily politically liberal communities. It involved people from all ideologies.”
Fracking remains a debated practice, with researchers and activists alike identifying many significant impacts that are often disputed by oil and gas companies.
“There are a multitude of concerns,” Mall said. “One is if the land that is put up for leasing in the Wayne National Forest is by drinking water aquifers … There are a lot of concerns about risks to drinking water.”
Cantino cited several problems with the effects of fracking that she and others believe would apply to fracking in the Wayne National Forest. Among them are air pollution from methane leakage and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as water contamination from leaks or spills that could harm people and natural ecosystems.
“Any impact on the forest is going to have an impact on community around it,” Cantino said.
One notable spill occurred in 2014, when a fire at a fracking well in Monroe County caused a spill that contaminated a creek with fracking chemicals and killed more than 70,000 fish and wildlife, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Impacts of fracking on ecosystems have been the subject of scientific research. Viorel Popescu, an assistant professor of biological sciences at OU, was an author on a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that identified the biological effects of fracking.
“Whenever you develop anything, including shale gas and oil, you have to look at what are the impacts,” Popescu said.
The study found that plants and wildlife can be hindered by several effects from fracking, such as water contamination, air and noise pollution, habitat loss and climate change.
Cutting down forests to make room for roads and pipelines for oil and natural gas wells can harm forest ecosystems, Mall said.
“The scientific community has to keep going and bring more proof to the table,” Popescu said. “But as long as we know what the impacts are then we can proceed with caution.”
Linda Hiller, an Athens resident, holds a sign that reads "Our Land, Our Future" in Spanish at an anti-fracking protest at the Wayne National Forest headquarters along Route 33 on Dec. 10.
Another impact of fracking scientists have identified is an increased number of earthquakes associated with hydraulic fracturing activity. For example, a 2015 study published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America showed that earthquakes in Mahoning County in Northeast Ohio occurred near local fracking operations.
Others, however, are more skeptical of the effects of fracking. Jackie Stewart, state director at Energy In Depth Ohio, an outreach campaign for the oil and natural gas industry, said fracking is safe and has a number of benefits.
Stewart said hydraulic fracturing causes fewer disturbances than conventional drilling, is protected by state and federal regulations and provides economic benefits to the region. She also cited a recent master’s thesis done with researchers at the University of Cincinnati that found “no evidence for natural gas contamination” in groundwater.
Too often people who criticize shale development have never been on a well pad nor have they taken the time to really learn about the health and safety precautions that are taken by the industry,” Stewart said.
Moving forward, Cantino said activist groups will continue to protest fracking activity in the Wayne National Forest and elsewhere.
“Activists from around the region, not just Ohio, are talking about what can be done,” Cantino said. “People are not going to be silenced.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that protestors gathered at Wayne National Forest in Nelsonville on an incorrect date. The protestors gathered Dec. 10. The article has been updated to show the most accurate information.