Should the state continue to allow waste fluids from oil and gas drilling to be pumped underground in Fayette County? That’s the question officials must answer as an underground injection control (UIC) well in Lochgelly comes up for re-permitting.
Everyday citizens may not have much experience with such wells, and there’s a lot to learn. So — why does the injection well in Lochgelly exist, and how does it work?
Class II disposal wells exist because of the large amount of fluid produced by oil and gas extraction in the U.S. — more than 3 trillion gallons over the course of several decades.
Instead of discharging it into rivers or collecting it in cesspools, the fluid is pumped deep underground.
Disposal wells make up approximately 20 percent of the 144,000 Class II UIC wells in the country. Class II wells collectively inject 2 billion gallons of produced fluid into the earth every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are one of six types of UIC wells permitted by federal regulation.
Much of the fluid is brine brought to the surface during oil and gas production. The salty water can also contain toxic metals and radioactive substances from underground, plus fracking chemicals, which have been shown to contain a variety of toxins.
The fluid is injected into the same geological formation from which it came, or a similar one, using a pressurized well.
The idea is that confining layers of rock keep the fluid from migrating upward and contaminating the water table. The injection pressure is kept below the pressure it would take to fracture the rock around or above the fluid.
Why it matters for Fayette County
Danny Webb Construction operates two disposal wells and one holding pit with a divider down the middle on Towne Hollow Road in Lochgelly.
The produced fluid is trucked to the site and either pumped into holding tanks or — if it contains a lot of dirt or coal — into the holding pit, where the solids settle out. The fluid then passes through a 5-micron filter and is injected underground.
“It was nothing but a pure garbage dump when I purchased the property,” says Webb, who has been in the oil and gas business since 1984, has an interest in about 100 gas wells, and defends his business as not only legal but “the environmental thing to do.”
“The state (Office of Oil and Gas) was the ones that brought me in and showed this to me in the first place and told me they thought there was a need for it,” he says.
Only one well is actively being used at the moment, and that’s the one up for re-permitting. It has absorbed more than 1.4 million barrels of brine since 2002, when it was created.
There is no limit on the amount of fluid that can be injected, as long as the company passes mechanical integrity tests on the wells.
Any fluid from an oil and gas operation — from West Virginia or elsewhere — is fair game, including not only brine but drilling fluid, fracking fluid, and other wastes. Webb’s company must do the hauling of the waste; no third-party haulers are allowed.
“Five years ago, it was probably one of the higher volume wells (in the state), but currently it’s dropped off,” says Jamie Peterson, who oversees Class II wells for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
He says that now there’s more competition from other disposal wells in the northern part of the state, which are closer to thicker deposits of recently tapped Marcellus shale. Fewer and fewer coal bed methane wells, which supplied most of the well’s business, are being drilled these days.
Webb says the state also suggested building the pit, to save on cost and keep him in business.
“They want this to go,” he said.
The longer he holds the water in the pit, the less he has to filter it. He calls the pit the “backbone” of his operation, without which he would spend three times as much on filters. He spends about $100,000 per year currently.
“I’m not the only one doing this, but seems like I’m the only one they pick on,” he says, referring to those with a concern over how the well might be affecting health, water and the environment.
Indeed, West Virginia is host to 759 Class II wells, including another in Fayette County operated by EQT Production Company.
Webb pays $118 in property taxes to Fayette County each year for his 4.76-acre property around the well.