USEPA report reveals ODNR repeatedly AWOL from field command meetings during critical early days of massive fracking fire incident

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

As clean-up efforts continue, advocates unveil damning incident report  and call for strengthened safeguards for firefighter & public safety, drinking water & wildlife

As mop up continues at the scene of a massive fracking well pad fire that ignited nearly a month ago near Clarington, Ohio (Monroe County), environmental advocates are asking why officials of Ohio's primary agency responsible for oil and gas oversight were repeatedly AWOL during the first week of field "Unified Command" meetings of agency and company officials following the fire's start.

The fire, which took a week to douse, risked firefighter safety, forced the evacuation of 25 households, posed a potential risk to drinking water supplies, and killed more than 70,000 fish in a 5-mile long fish kill.

A recently-surfaced US EPA incident report exposes major gaps in Ohio law and reveals that ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources officials were not present at five of the first eight daily "Unified Command" meetings where state and federal EPA officials, local firefighters, and company contractors planned how to extinguish the fire and direct efforts to protect residents, drinking water, and wildlife.

“ODNR often assures the public that they always have an inspector present when a well is constructed. Is it too much to ask that they be present at unified command when there is a spill or fire at the well pad?” asked Melanie Houston, Director of Environmental Health for the Ohio Environmental Council.  “It is inexcusable that ODNR waited two days to request the identity of the proprietary chemicals kept on site,” added Houston.

“Ohio is playing a dangerous game of hide and seek with first responders and community safety when it comes to providing chemical information at well pads,” said Teresa Mills of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

The report also details dangerous conditions present at the well pad incident, including the presence of unidentified chemicals, explosive charges, and radiological equipment. Explosive charges and radiological equipment were unaccounted for during several days of the response effort. The report notes that at least 30 explosions occurred during the course of the fire and that shrapnel from explosions posed a threat to first responders at the scene.

Per the report, one of the shale wells on the pad spewed toxic fracking flowback and brine from the time the fire began around 9:00am June 28 through about 12:30am on June 29. The report notes that flowback and chemicals from the site entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek and contributed to a 5-mile fish kill.                   

Environmental advocates are calling on state lawmakers and regulators to strengthen Ohio law and improve state and local emergency response capability through:

  • Instantaneous disclosure of all fracking chemicals stored or in use at an oil and gas well upon the request of a fire department, first responders, or drinking water authorities.
  • Emergency rules mandating that all horizontal oil and gas wells adopt approved spill prevention measures and install earthen berms or other approved secondary containment systems to control wall pad spills.
  • Strengthened minimum distance setbacks separating all new oil and gas wells from occupied dwellings, waterways, and other areas that may be especially sensitive to a fire, explosion, or chemical leak.
  • Dedicating revenue from the state oil and gas severance tax for training and equipment for emergency response to oil and gas incidents by the Ohio EPA, local fire departments, and emergency management agencies.

“This massive fire, chemical spill, and miles-long fish kill illustrates several gaping holes in Ohio’s fracking laws. Ohio has by far the weakest spacing rules in the nation – shale wells can be located a mere 50 feet from streams and 100 to 200 feet people’s homes. The well pad in this case was far too close to both homes – two residents were within 200 yards – and Opossum Creek, a ‘Superior High Quality Water,’” said Nathan Johnson, Attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council.

“Opossum Creek empties into the Ohio River a mere 1.7 miles upstream from a public drinking water intake and Ohio law prevented public water supply authorities from identifying the “trade secret” chemicals that polluted it,” said Johnson. “Water authorities need secret chemical information immediately. Our drinking water is at risk unless the legislature makes some much needed changes,” added Johnson. Ohio law prohibits anyone from accessing the identity of “trade secret” fracking chemicals, except ODNR or doctors treating a specific patient. By statute, neither ODNR nor doctors are allowed to share that crucial information.

“The Monroe County well pad fire makes painfully clear that ODNR has been asleep at the wheel for far too long. We have been waiting for years for the agency to create regulations governing well pad construction and pollution containment. ODNR should be ashamed that the public is still waiting for these rules to be issued – ODNR currently has nothing on the books,” said Teresa Mills of CHEJ.

In response to the Monroe County fire and water pollution incident, Governor Kasich told The Columbus Dispatch that, "We want people to know what the fracking fluid contains.” “We agree with Governor Kasich that it is unacceptable for emergency responders, including federal and Ohio EPA officials, to not have timely access to the full list of chemicals that may have spilled into Opossum Creek and the Ohio River. We call on Governor Kasich to get the General Assembly and the ODNR to move at the speed of business to get appropriate safeguards in place,” said OEC’s Johnson.

Shocking findings:

A USEPA pollution incident report about the fire and efforts to contain it along with a July 21 story by The Columbus Dispatch details shocking revelations, including lapses by ODNR officials and loopholes in Ohio law that may have placed the health and safety of firefighters and residents and area drinking water sources in harm's way. Among the findings:

ODNR present + accounted for at only 3 of first 8 daily field "Unified Command" meetings:

- USEPA recorded ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources as checked in with the "Unified Command" present in the field at the well fire site on June 30 and July 1 + 2, but not checked in on June 28 + 29 nor July 2, 4 + 5. The Unified Command links the major agencies and organizations responding to an incident and provides a forum for these entities to make consensus decisions.

- ODNR's repeated reported absence from the Unified Command meetings and the report's frequent references to Ohio EPA's on-scene participation with the emergency response conflicts with ODNR's frequent portrayal to lawmakers and the public that it is the primary agency in control of all aspects of oil + gas operations in Ohio, including sole and exclusive authority over all activities on the well pad.

Significant delay and prevention of chemical disclosure at well site:

- Two days after the fire started, ODNR exercised its authority under Ohio law to see the entire list of chemicals. Halliburton, the company hired by Statoil to frack the well, gave the list to the ODNR. But ODNR did not share that information with either the US or Ohio EPA.

- The Ohio law governing the disclosure of chemicals designated as a trade secret actually prohibits the ODNR from disclosing the information. (ODNR officials signed off on the law when it was passed in 2012.)

Firefighters + emergency responders contended with explosives, shrapnel, radioactive materials:

- Although ODNR inspectors responded to the scene during the June 28 fire, the inspectors apparently failed to mention until two days later that explosives were present on the well pad. According to the USEPA report (p. 5), on June 30, "Work was halted for an inspection and to address concerns expressed by ODNR Oil & Gas in regards to potential explosives, cylinders and remaining chemicals on the well pad."

-"...there was an inventory of shaped charges, primer cord and detonators on the site as well as three Cesium-137 radiological sources (2-100 millicurie and 1-55 millicurie) with unknown disposition as a result of the fire." ... "Multiple explosions (estimated to be more than 30) generating shrapnel slowed fire suppression efforts." (p. 2)

- ODNR's failure to provide critical information in a timely manner raises concern about ODNR's emergency response capacity and whether it may have placed first responders in harm's way.

There apparently was no earthen berm at the well pad, contributing to the spill. Further, though it has had it in its work plan for nearly a decade, ODNR has yet to adopt rules to require spill prevention and secondary containment standards.

-By the USEPA report's narrative, the well pad apparently had no earthen berm to capture the flow back of fluids from the well head nor water used in the fire fighting effort. The USEPA report includes no description whatever of an existing berm at the site. Rather, the report includes references to "uncontrolled discharge from the site from the water curtain and the wellhead and small areas of fire." (p. 2). The report further states that on June 28, "...an interceptor trench was begun on the south side of the well pad in an attempt to contain runoff from the site. Equipment was mobilized to begin constructing an earthen berm to contain runoff and to flood the pad to extinguish remaining fires." (p. 3)

- "As a result of fire-fighting efforts and flow back from the well head, significant quantities of water and unknown quantities of products on the well pad left the site and entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek that ultimately discharges to the Ohio River. Runoff left the pad at various locations via sheet flow as well as by two catch basins located at the northwest + southeast corners of the well pad. ... Upon USEPA arrival at approximately 2000 hours on June 28, 2014, numerous fires continued to burn on the well pad, uncontained run-off was exiting the site and entering an unnamed tributary of Oppossum Creek to the south and west and flowback water from the Eisenbarth Well #7 was spilling on the well pad." (p. 2)

- ODNR's failure to successfully promulgate rules governing pad construction allowed the uncontrolled release of fracking fluids from the well pad and allowed these toxic chemicals to destroy a highly valuable stream and caused a fish kill over five miles of stream.  

Resources and photos for media use: