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Citizen audit of Ohio wells: Doing the regulators’ jobs for them

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Earlier this year I wrote about the challenge activists face in working with structured data. In short, public agencies increasingly make systematized information like well inspection reports available for download as very large database files. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has a page where anyone can download a large (213 MB as of last Friday) file with detailed well history going back as far as 1980. While it’s great to have so much information available, it’s impossible to go through manually – and that’s provided you already know how everything connects together.

I wrote about it at the time because I was helping out with a project that I wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day, but last week it did. Melissa English and Nathan Rutz of Ohio Citizen Action published a citizen audit of the well data, and I’m happy to be listed as a contributor. The body of the audit is available as a PDF here (appendices separate). Its purpose: “The authors of this report recommend that the U.S. EPA suspend the ODNR’s authority to operate the Underground Injection Control program until completing a thorough audit of all of Ohio’s active injection wells and only reinstating that authority if and when the ODNR’s competence and independence from industry influence can be demonstrated.” The audit is only 17 pages long and is very readable (though I write that as someone who’s been engaged on the issue for a while), and it’s meant to be understandable even by those who aren’t especially familiar with the issue.

Part of the reason for it was because the US EPA promised much better oversight of ODNR than it has delivered. It produced audits in 2005 and 2009, with the latter being (as the Ohio Citizen report notes) an 80% copy and paste of the former. The actual work that was done was somewhat cursory, and in any event this was all before fracking really took off in Ohio. In 2009 the EPA said the next audit would occur in 2012 or 2013, and here we are about to close the books on 2014 with nothing. So part of the reason for the project was simple frustration with the EPA not following up on what it said it would do. Can’t be bothered to do an audit? OK, we’ll try one ourselves.

ODNR gets the lion’s share of attention though, as it should. English and Rutz highlight problems in the inspection reports that a layman can understand. In one, the “well’s operational permit requires annulus pressure to be 200 or greater, the annulus pressure is less than 200 PSI 23 times and the well is never cited for a violation.” Wild swings in annulus pressure can indicate mechanical problems. 34 of the 43 wells reviewed “showed instances of injection pressure fluctuations greater than 100 PSI from inspection to inspection at some point,” yet no action was apparently taken. (This was the part of the report I contributed to – helping out with going through a well’s inspection history, flagging items like substantial pressure swings, and so on.)

The report shows how ODNR inspectors have varying standards for testing and reporting, with some recording nearly identical “everything is fine” comments even when the inspection reveals clear problems. Individual inspectors are sometimes vigilant for certain problems but lax for others. In short, there does not appear to be any clear and consistent practice for inspections. While individual ones might read fine, looking at them as whole is kind of a mess.

Finally, there is a section called “ODNR Disdain or disrespect for public inquiries and requests.” One of the items mentioned is this:

In August 2014, a Monroe County citizen asked the ODNR why notice of a new injection well permit had not been published in a county newspaper, as the law required. Jennifer Gringas of the ODNR replied that public notice doesn’t necessarily have to be published in a newspaper of the county where the injection well will be, just a newspaper published nearby.

This is consistent with what we have seen locally. A couple years ago I wrote about how ODNR made its public notice of new permits in a virtually unknown, online-only site called the Portage County Legal News. ODNR seems to either (charitably) not put much effort into identifying the major newspaper in a community or (uncharitably) look for an obscure publication that technically meets requirements in order to slip it in under the radar. The report also mentions the information session it held on the permits, which included armed guards and a canine unit but little actual information. (I wrote about that as well.)

In all, the Ohio Citizen Action report makes a strong case that the US EPA is not providing adequate oversight of ODNR, ODNR’s inspection process is subpar, and the agency is not responsive to the citizens it is supposed to serve. Bringing these deficiencies to the public’s attention is a valuable service. If we’re lucky, maybe bad PR will get regulatory agencies to act as they are supposed to. Simply expecting them to do that on their own is apparently not enough.

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