Fracking incidents expose major gaps in Ohio law

Fracking fire

In May and June 2014, there were two major fracking incidents in Ohio, including a well blow out and resulting oil spill in Morgan County and a massive well pad fire in Monroe County.

The well blow out occurred on May 4, 2014 as a result of “an unexpected pocket of natural gas” during drilling, and resulted in a 100 barrel spill of drilling mud into a creek near Beverly, Ohio.

This creek is a tributary leading into the Mahoning River, and ultimately to the Ohio River.

The well pad fire in Monroe County began on June 28 as a result of a ruptured hydraulic line spraying flammable liquid on hot equipment. The flames engulfed 20 chemical trucks and triggered 30 or more explosions that rained shrapnel over the site. The fire took nearly a week to extinguish, and resulted in a  5-mile long fish kill, poisoning over 70,000 fish and posing a risk to drinking water.

In fact, drinking water utilities did not have a complete list of all of the chemicals involved in the fire until many days after the incident.  This was because proprietary chemicals can be held as trade secrets under Ohio law.  This massive fire also risked firefighter safety and forced the evacuation of 25 households.

These incidents have exposed significant problems with Ohio’s statutory and regulatory framework regarding chemical disclosure and minimum setback distances between well pads, water bodies, and homes.

Unfortunately, under current Ohio law, oil and gas operators may withhold the identity of certain chemicals as “trade secrets” from nearly every pertinent regulatory and emergency response entity. While Ohio law allows the Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management (DOGRM) to request trade secret information, s/he is prohibited by law from sharing it with anyone, including first responders and public drinking water utilities.

The Monroe County fire and chemical spill is a stunning wake-up call: rather than ensuring public safety, Ohio law actually prevents first responders and public drinking water suppliers from properly protecting themselves and the public from dangerous, fracking-related chemicals. Ohio’s chemical disclosure laws need to be updated to require full and timely disclosure of all fracking-related chemicals to the professionals who need the information to protect public health and respond to emergencies.

The Monroe County fire and the Morgan County blow out and spill also illustrate that Ohio has some of the weakest minimum setback requirements in the nation.  Ohio law currently allows shale gas wells to be located as close as 50 feet from a stream and 100 feet from a home.

During the Monroe fire, chemicals and flowback fluid gushing from an uncontrolled wellhead flowed down-slope into a nearby tributary of Opossum Creek resulting in the loss of at least 70,000 fish. Two homes were within 200 yards of the well pad. Cleanup of the stream located right beside the Morgan County well that blew out in May is still ongoing. Minimum setback distances need to be increased to better protect homes and habitats from fracking-related fires, pollution incidents, and air pollution normally associated with such operations.