The Dangers of Oil and Gas Brine in Ohio

MapDescription automatically generated

Image of Ohio Brine Spreading in Cities and Townships Map by Dr. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance,

A major hazardous byproduct of oil and gas operations, called “brine”, poses a pressing problem because of its long-term radioactivity and the extreme volumes produced each year. Billions of gallons of this waste have been injected into Class II injection wells throughout Ohio and millions of gallons have been spread on Ohio roads as a deicer and dust suppressant. Ohio is one of at least 13 states that allow oil-well waste to be spread on roads. Several activist groups in Ohio have been working to educate the public and elected officials about the dangers of spreading oil and gas waste brine and to ban this practice for the benefit of current and future generations, and nature.

Each year in Ohio, several billion gallons of a substance, called “brine”, is produced from oil and gas wells. This byproduct, euphemistically called “brine”, is actually toxic and radioactive waste.  While it is true that it has a high concentration of salt, it is well known that oil and gas brine contains heavy metals including Cadmium, Arsenic, and Lead, and dangerous compounds such as Benzene.  But most concerning are two isotopes of radium found in brine – Radium 226 and 228.  We know this from the Ohio Division of Natural Resources (ODNR) actual tests in 2018 of brine from many conventional (vertical) and unconventional (horizontal) wells throughout Ohio (see the Brine Factsheet and ODNR Brine Study spreadsheet).

Some facts regarding the dangers of radium:

* Radium 226 is water soluble and bone-seeking

* The half-life of Radium 226 is 1600 years; thus, it will remain radioactive for thousands of years

* Exposure to even low levels of radium is known to cause bone, liver, and breast cancer

* Radium decays into radon gas which is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S

* The US EPA has set a drinking water limit of 5 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) for Radium 226 and 228 combined

* The Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) has set environmental discharge limits for Radium 226 and 228 at 60 pCi/L each.

It is clear from ODNR’s own data that brine from only one out of the 118 conventional wells sampled had met the OAC environmental discharge level.  I am only mentioning the conventional wells because brine allowed for spreading must come from these wells.  This is because brine from horizontal wells, which involves fracking, was thought to have a higher radium content.  We now know this is not true – conventional-well brine can be just as radioactive as horizontal-well brine.  If you look at the numbers, they are frightening. Combined Radium 226 and 228 brine levels from the conventional wells was as high as 9602 pCi/L, and the average level for all 118 wells was 1182 pCi/L – nearly 10 times the allowed environmental discharge limit!

A Rolling Stone reporter, Justin Nobel, has been studying this issue and published a powerful and frightening article in Rolling Stone Magazine entitled, America’s Radioactive Secret.  He has uncovered documents from the American Petroleum Institute and others which reveal that the industry has known about this risk for decades.

So, since waste brine is so toxic and radioactive – and will remain radioactive for thousands of years – shouldn’t it be treated as hazardous waste and not be spread into our environment? Well, the failure of regulatory agencies and our representatives, and their collusion with the oil and gas industry have jeopardized the health of the people, our environment, nature, and many future generations for the financial well-being of the industry. In addition, regulatory agencies, by their very nature, allow harm; they are just designed to regulate how much.

In 1988, due to industry pressure, the US EPA declared that oil and gas waste is non-hazardous. Industry was worried about the significant cost if their huge volumes of waste had to be treated as hazardous waste. Also, in 1985, Ohio legalized the practice of oil and gas brine spreading on roads as a deicer and dust suppressant but brine has likely been spread on Ohio road since the 1930s. In 1986, it was discovered that oil-well brine had high levels of benzene. Subsequently, ODNR, the Ohio EPA, and the Ohio Department of Health decided to lobby to outlaw oil-well brine spreading but the Ohio Legislature would not let that happen. Now that we know brine is even worse with a high radium content, where are those agencies now?

Also, in 2004, even though Ohio is supposed to be a Home Rule State, the legislature passed House Bill (HB) 278 which took away local control on oil and gas regulation and granted ODNR sole authority. This means that Ohioans cannot prevent injection wells in their communities due to state preemption. Of course, this was done after heavy lobbying from the oil and gas industry, a few years before the fracking boom.

Regarding local brine spreading, Section 1509.226 of the Ohio Revised Code grants a board of county commissioners, a board of township trustees, or the legislative authority of a municipal corporation the ability to permit surface application of brine to roads. Due to environmental and public health concerns, the commissioners of Athens County and Franklin County have adopted resolutions disapproving of brine spreading.

The Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN) and the Ohio Brine Task Force have been working to ban oil and gas waste brine spreading in Ohio. The OHCRN Toxic Trespass webpage has a lot of articles, media, and relevant information regarding brine spreading in Ohio and one can also find a great deal of resources on the Ohio Brine Task Force webpage.

Interestingly, Ohio has a law, ORC § 2927.24, enacted in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, that makes it a felony to “knowingly leave in any public place, or knowingly expose one or more persons to any hazardous chemical … or radioactive substance with the intent to … create a risk of … serious physical harm to any person.” Elected officials and state agencies have long known about the radioactive content of brine and its risks but have allowed the public to be exposed to it anyway. OHCRN delivered a letter and documents in June 2021 calling on the Ohio Attorney General, Dave Yost, and 9 County Prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into radioactive pollution of Ohio’s waterways. The Attorney General’s office and County Prosecutors have responded to this matter have with runaround replies to contact legislators or ODNR officials, but these are the very individuals that OHCRN has called on the Attorney General and County Prosecutors to investigate.

Another impetus for calling on a criminal investigation regarding brine spreading are two current bills in the state legislature, SB171 and HB 282, that seek to “establish conditions and requirements for the sale of brine as a commodity and to exempt that commodity from requirements otherwise applicable to brine.” Astonishingly, these bills would authorize brine levels of up to 20,000 picocuries/liter for Radium 226 and 2,500 picocuries/liter for Radium 228 to be sold in stores without any radioactive warning and to be sprayed on Ohio’s roads.

Pennsylvania ended brine spreading in 2018, as explained in this article entitled, Study finds health threats from oil and gas wastewater spread on roads. It states, “a new study (from researchers at Penn State) found the practice — which the state recently ended — could threaten environmental and public health by leaching metals, salts, and radioactive materials into surface or groundwater, nearby soil, and even the air.”

In February 2022, Ohio Representative Mary Lightbody introduced HB 579 that would prohibit the surface application of oil and gas brine on Ohio roads. So far, there have been no hearings on the bill.

The Long Game of the Oil and Gas Industry

The amount of oil and gas brine being produced has been increasing exponentially since 2010. How does the oil and gas industry plan to dispose of this increasing toxic and radioactive waste?

Ohio currently has 226 Class II Brine injection wells. How many more of these can and will be drilled? Also, how much more brine can be forced down these wells at high pressure and what are the consequences? In addition to disposing of fracking brine waste from Ohio operations, a great deal of brine from Pennsylvania and West Virginia is disposed of in Ohio.

We have seen that fracking waste brine injected into Class II Wells can migrate. This is not surprising given the high volumes of brine injected at high pressures and the permeability and fissures in the geology of the formations. In late 2019, it was discovered that brine from the Redbird #4 Class II Injection Well in Washington County had migrated to 28 gas-producing wells at least 5 miles away. In an investigation by ODNR, it states, “Naturally occurring fissures exist between the Ohio Shale formation and Berea Sandstone formation, allowing wastewater to migrate between the formations and into the production wells.” If brine can migrate to gas-producing wells miles away, it certainly can migrate to drinking water sources. Alarmingly, Ohio has no requirements for water monitoring wells near injection wells.

The oil and gas industry must be planning more ways of disposing its billions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste in Ohio and externalizing the cost onto the public. More injection wells might be drilled but those are costly to the industry. More brine might be forced down the current injection wells but how many more Redbird #4-like incidents will occur given approximately 200,000 orphaned and abandoned, unplugged wells in Ohio, which are essentially open holes in the ground. “Orphaned wells” have no owner or operator who can be located, and “abandoned wells” are unproductive wells with a known owner or operator.

The industry could push for brine from horizontal, fracked wells to be allowed for surface application. They may argue that since the heavy metals and radium content is essentially the same for brine from vertical as it is for horizontal wells, and the state currently allows vertical well brine for spreading, why not allow it for horizontal well brine. They could also push legislators to further preempt townships, counties, and cities by taking away their authority to disapprove brine spreading.

Perhaps, the most beneficial option to the oil and gas industry regarding the disposal of its brine waste – but an atrocious scheme for all living things – is to have it commodified, thereby removing any accountability of its use, and even potentially making a profit over the poisoning of uninformed citizens, nature, the environment, and many future generations.

The Take Away

The people must decide what kind of environment they want to live in and push to have the authority to be able to decide, not only in their communities, but across the state because contaminated water does not obey our artificial local boundaries. Moreover, Ohioans should be able to travel anywhere in the state without the risk of toxic and radioactive waste. We must not depend on regulatory agencies to save us because the system is rigged and not really designed to protect us.

So, not only has the production and use of oil and gas played a big role in the acceleration of the climate crisis, but the disposal of its waste will present a problem for generations to come.

Bill Lyons lives in Columbus Ohio. He is the president of the Ohio Community Rights Network and a member of the Ohio Brine Task Force. Both groups have been working to stop oil and gas brine spreading in Ohio for several years. He is also a co-organizer of the group Columbus Community Bill of Rights which has campaigned for four citizen initiatives to protect the Columbus watershed from frack waste and related fossil fuel activities.