An oil company wants to drill an injection well in Lenawee County. What does it mean?

A class 2 brine disposal well in western Louisiana near the Texas border in this photo from ProPublica.

Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica (Creative Commons)

A Class II brine disposal well in western Louisiana near the Texas border in this photo from ProPublica.

So let’s say you’ve been drilling for oil and gas. You’ve been doing it for a while, and you have a whole lot of brine — that is, salty water that gets brought to the surface while you’re extracting your black gold from down below.

So what do you do with it all?

Well, typically, you inject it back into the ground. There are thousands of injection wells being used for byproduct disposal in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The theory is that by injecting the waste underneath impermeable formations, you can prevent groundwater contamination.

Unfortunately, according to a 2012 report by the nonprofit journalism group ProPublica, there’s growing evidence that the theory might be wrong.

And now there are plans for an injection well right here in Lenawee County.

The Daily Telegram reported today that Savoy Energy, which has a number of wells in Lenawee County, wants to drill a Class II injection well in Raisin Township, just outside Adrian. The location, the Telegram reports, is not far from the gravesite of Lenawee County abolitionist Elizabeth Margaret Chandler.

Here are some quick facts about injection wells and the proposal …

What’s a Class II injection well?

Here’s how the EPA explains it: “Class II wells inject fluids associated with oil and natural gas production. Most of the injected fluid is salt water (brine), which is brought to the surface in the process of producing (extracting) oil and gas.”

There are about 144,000 Class II injection wells in the United States, according to the EPA, injecting over 2 billion gallons of brine every day. About 20% of these are disposal wells, which are the type we’re talking about here.

Why are they used?

Again, from the EPA: “When oil and gas are extracted, large amounts of brine are typically brought to the surface. Often saltier than seawater, this brine can also contain toxic metals and radioactive substances. It can be very damaging to the environment and public health if it is discharged to surface water or the land surface. By injecting the brine deep underground, Class II wells prevent surface contamination of soil and water.”

So if this prevents surface contamination, what’s the problem?

In theory, the rock formations that the brine is injected under act like a kind of lid, keeping it from contaminating anything on the surface. But as Homer Simpson said, “In theory, communism works.” This ProPublica report suggests that the reality might not be quite so clean:

Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.

No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

There are growing signs they were mistaken.

Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.

In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation’s most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami’s drinking water.

You can read the rest of the report here.

So is there anything anyone can do about it?

According to today’s Telegram story, if there’s enough interest, the EPA will schedule a public hearing. Written comments may be sent to William Tong, U.S. EPA Water Division, UIC Branch (WU-16J), 77 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60604-3590, or emailed to tong.william@epa.gov.

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  • David R. Warwick

    Why not transport the brine to Chemtura’s existing well on Gulf st? Sounds like a plan to me…

  • Allison MacArthur-Ruesink

    Don’t expect the DEQ to protect you..the employees with experience and ethics are harassed into retirement or worse. The head of the division in charge regularly is a guest of these oil companies as well.