When thousands of gallons of gas, crude oil and benzene, a cancer-causing agent, spilled from a shale well in Morgan County this month, the state called the incident rare.
But there were at least 40 crude-oil spills, blowouts and leaks related to oil and gas drilling last year in Ohio — the most since at least 2009, according to data kept by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
That doesn’t include spills or leaks of other fluids commonly used in drilling.
There were three crude-oil spills from Jan. 1 to mid-February this year, the EPA data show — one each in Wooster, Lima and southern Medina County. The Morgan County spill has not been included in the data yet.
“We’re flabbergasted — the public has been kept in the dark,” said Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group. “I doubt many citizens or even lawmakers are aware of these 40 crude-oil spills last year.”
Not all of the episodes occurred at shale wells, where fracking is used to release oil and gas. Some occurred at traditional oil wells.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources still considers spills rare. Although there have been at least 170 crude-oil spills in the past five years, there are nearly 70,000 active oil and gas wells in the state.
“I cannot think of a similar incident (to the Morgan County spill),” said Mark Bruce, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — which issues permits for oil- and gas-drilling operations. “Spills do not happen every day.”
The Morgan County spill forced the evacuation of nearby residents and reached a neighboring creek. Two weeks later, crews are still working to clean up drilling mud, crude oil and contaminated water.
Natural Resources, which also inspects and monitors the production at drilling sites, does not track spills or monitor cleanup. That’s left to the Ohio EPA.
Not every incident is large, like the one in Morgan County, but all must be reported to the EPA.
Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said people should be aware of spills.
“What the public should really be concerned about is that regulations are in place to ensure the environment is protected in the event of a spill,” he said, “and that people are doing things to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
It isn’t clear whether any state agency is closely monitoring how often incidents occur or what types are occurring. The EPA maintains a database that tracks what was released in spills, where they occured and the cleanup response, but the agency does not regularly analyze that data to spot trends, an agency spokeswoman said.
“We are able to pull things out, but that is not a nimble database,” said spokeswoman Heather Lauer.
The agency focuses more on regulation and helping companies stay within the law, she said, and trends that might drive policy changes are more in the purview of Natural Resources, which regulates Ohio’s oil and gas industry.
Some of the state’s largest drilling operations, including operators of fracking wells, have had several spills since 2009.
EnerVest, which has had 15 crude-oil spills since 2009, primarily operates conventional wells in Ohio, though it has fracked some shale wells and has permits to drill more. Spills have occurred at its older, traditional wells, EnerVest spokesman Ron Whitmire said.
“We’ve acquired 8,000 wells in Ohio in the past 10 years. Some are very old wells,” he said.
The surface pipes that carry oil to storage or processing facilities, called flow lines, sometimes fail, he said. EnerVest inspects them weekly, and the spills often are small — five or 10 barrels.
Natural Resources is drafting new rules for well-pad construction and spill-containment structures for fracking-
related wells, Bruce said, but he could not give details on the changes.
Ohio has increased its enforcement efforts in response to the growing number of wells, he said. The agency has tripled the number of employees focused on oil and gas to 100, including 50 inspectors, since 2010.
“In this industry, incidents will happen,” Bruce said. “But what’s important is how we respond to them, how we work to prevent them and how we effectively deal with them.”
By Jennifer Smith Richards - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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