COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In Ohio, geographically and politically positioned to become a leading importer of wastewater from gas drilling, environmentalists and lawmakers opposed to the technique known as fracking are seizing on a series of small earthquakes as a signal to proceed with caution.
Earthquakes caused by the injection of wastewater that is a byproduct of high-pressure hydraulic fracture drilling aren't new. Yet earthquakes have a special ability to grab public attention.
That's especially true after Saturday's quake near Youngstown, at magnitude 4.0 strong enough to be felt across hundreds of square miles. Gov. John Kasich, a drilling proponent, has shut down the wastewater well on which the quake has been blamed, along with others in the area, as the seismic activity is reviewed.
"Drilling's very important for our economy and to help us progress as a state, but every single person in the Mahoning Valley felt this earthquake," said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown Democrat who on Tuesday called for a public hearing.
"I wouldn't deem it as an emergency, but when you live in a place that you're not used to earthquakes and you have 11 earthquakes, you're concerned," he said. "We need to give them some sort of confidence or security that this is going to be OK."
Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals and sand, deep into the ground to unlock vast reserves of natural gas, a boon for energy companies and a public hungry for cheap sources of fuel.
That process leaves behind toxic wastewater that must be expensively treated or else pumped deep into the earth. The wastewater is extremely briny and can contain toxic chemicals from the drilling process, and sometimes radioactivity from deep underground.
The practice of dumping underground has been controversial in light of scant research done on potential environmental dangers, highlighted by reports of contamination of aquifers in some communities in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Some states are reconsidering it.
Little drilling impact
A coalition of environmental groups is preparing a protest for next week's return of the Ohio Legislature.
Activists opposed to increased oil and gas drilling activity across Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia -- where the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations are believed to hold vast quantities of gas -- see trouble with the Ohio injection well.
"What other business or industry isn't held accountable for its full cradle-to-grave processes?" said Deborah Nardone, director of the Sierra Club's Natural Gas Campaign. "They need to be responsible for the waste stream that they've created."
Ohio's closure of the well will have little to no impact on drilling, said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group based in Pennsylvania. Four of the five wells that Ohio shut down were not operational, Windle said.
Pennsylvania's drillers have turned in recent months to deep-well injection of millions of gallons of wastewater because of a voluntary state moratorium last year on dumping of waste at treatment plants, where the partially treated liquids are discharged into rivers and streams that drinking water is taken from.
Pennsylvania has six deep injection wells that currently accept fracking fluid, said Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection. But much of its waste is trucked into Ohio, where the geology allows for more injection wells.
Ohio's willingness to accept the fracking leftovers amid a drilling boom in states to the east, south and west worries some residents and environmental advocates who say the science isn't proven -- and point to the earthquakes as evidence.
The Ohio Petroleum Council, an industry group, says any public anxiety is misplaced.
"Injection wells have worked well to protect public safety for decades, and a situation like the one in question near Youngstown is very rare," executive director Terry Fleming said in a statement.