Over the past two years residents within the area of the wells in Columbus Township and Bear Lake have opposed the construction and permitting of the wells within the area of their homes for a number of reasons, including fear of water contamination, decreased property values, how local emergency management would respond to an accident at the site and possible degradation of the Tamarack Swamp, recognized as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
At a public hearing held by the EPA at the Columbus Township Social Hall on March 23, 2011 residents provided testimony and written comments concerning the issuing of the permits for the injection wells.
"The purpose of the UIC permitting process for new wells is to control and prevent any injected fluids from endangering underground sources of drinking water," Karen Johnson, chief of groundwater and enforcement branch of the Water Protection Division of the EPA in Philadelphia said at the hearing.
According to Johnson, the UIC program does not address or enforce issues such as noise, air emissions and truck traffic. The program does require operators to comply with all local and state laws and a UIC permit does not override local or state regulations.
"Where is this stuff coming from and why is our area picked to be the injection well?" Roger Wooden, Bear Lake Borough councilman asked.
"What happens to us as fire department, not just Bear Lake, Columbus, Clymer, what do we do if one of these trucks flips over and spills all this stuff on our roadways?" Monty Johnson, vice president of the Bear Lake Volunteer Fire Department said during the hearing. "What are we to do as a fire department? How do we handle this?"
Shortly after the meeting, Karl Kimmich, president of Bear Lake Properties said the company was looking into installing a pipeline that would stretch from the rail line that runs between Routes 6 and 957 to the site of the wells that would alleviate concerns expressed during the first EPA public hearing about the condition of roads in that part of the township and the amount of truck traffic that would be created.
The company did approach some local land owners about constructing the pipeline on their property, but has not been permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection or constructed yet.
Two cents a barrel
According to documents from the Warren County Register and Recorder office, an agreement between Bear Lake Properties and the property owners was reached for 59.71 and 254 acres of land in 2010 for operation of the injection wells on their property.
The disposal well easement agreement states, "Grantee shall monitor the monthly volume of fluid disposed into these wells and remit to Grantee the sum of $0.02 per barrel of fluid disposed. The remittance shall be paid monthly."
The permit states that both well sites will each not exceed 30,000 barrels a month.
Before the fluids are injected into the well, they have to be tested and an analysis of the contents of the water will be completed, Kimmich explained. The contents of the water are public information and could be found through the Freedom of Information Act.
"Any time we accept new water it will have to be tested," Kimmich said, and the water will have to meet a specified set of standards established by the EPA.
"We look at it from the standpoint, and the EPA agrees, the best management practice is to put it back underground where it came from," Kimmich said.
Tom Stroup, a retired deputy for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and a member of the Brokenstraw Watershed Council, said in March of last year his concerns lay with the pollution of the Warren and Corry aquifers. The Warren and Corry aquifers, he said, are part of the Brokenstraw Watershed, which encompasses 313 square miles.
"If it gets into the aquifers as opposed to private water wells, that's a disaster," Stroup said.
The redundancies put into place by Bear Lake Properties to prevent pollution to underground sources of drinking water are one of the points made by Kimmich detailing why the Bittinger wells in Columbus Township are ideal for disposal fluids.
According to Kimmich, the modern well construction has allowed for 8 5/8-inch of cemented groundwater protection tubing in each well that was drilled, which runs about 400 feet below any source of water that people use for water wells.
A second set of 4 1/2-inch production casing is cemented between 1,000 and 2,000 feet over the zone that produced the gas, that will now hold the disposal water.
An additional injection tube two to three inches in diameter runs inside the production casing, which has a injection packer at the bottom providing a third seal between the zone where the water is injected. Pressure is monitored at the injection site as well, and if the pressure drops below a certain level, the system shuts down and stops injecting.
The well construction is coupled with a thick layer of salt about 300 feet thick, "which acts as a great seal," Kimmich said.
Stroup said at the time if the permit is granted the township will have the right to appeal the decision by the EPA.
"I'm afraid it it goes to appeal it's a done deal," Stroup said.
On June 8, 2011, the EPA granted the final permits allowing Bear Lake Properties to move ahead with the operation of two brine disposal wells.
The first of the final permits
Nearly a week later Dan Wood, vice chairman of the Columbus Township supervisors, said they would appeal the decision and were in the process drafting an ordinance that would restrict the use of injection wells in the township.
Wood said the township was also working with Warren County officials to possibly draft a county-wide ordinance.
At a special meeting held by the supervisors in July, Wood said the "Liquid Waste Disposal Ordinance" would defeat a permit issued by the EPA. "These ordinances are our last line of defense against these rulings," he said.
The ordinance would prohibit "of any harmful, noxious, chemical-laden, toxic, hazardous, radioactive, and/or unnaturally occurring liquids which are derived from sources outside of Columbus Township."
The supervisors tabled a vote on the ordinance to consider how local farmers may be unintentionally affected.
Kimmich said the language of the ordinance presumes that waste brought into the township is going to pollute the environment, but the injection well programs are administered by the federal and state governments, which have the intent of preventing pollution.
"We're not going to just give up and go away. We've got a lot of time and energy invested in the project and we have approval from the EPA," Kimmich said.
Stroup and Peiffer
An appeal to the EPA's decision was actually filed by township solicitor Andrea Stapleford on behalf of Tom Stroup and Bill Peiffer in July asking the Federal Environmental Appeals Board to review the permits granted by the EPA.
"Failing to take into consideration all of the relevant information with regard to areas which are or which may become earthquake-prone and considering only that which has occurred to date, particularly given the history provided for other areas which are similarly situated to Columbus Township, is an improper exercise of discretion by the EPA which warrants review, and subsequently, the revocation of the Permits," the petition for review said.
The appeal also asked the EPA appeals board to review what Stroup and Peiffer said was a failure to account for the depth of water wells in Columbus Township, the number of as wells in the area, the population growth in the township and possible adverse economic impacts, the potential for earthquakes and accepting late-filed comments for the draft permit.
County's role limited
The idea of restricting injection wells through a county-wide ordinance was briefly discussed during the Warren County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in August of 2011.
Dan Glotz, Warren County planning and zoning director, said any amendments to the county zoning ordinance would regulate an injection well above the surface, but sub-surface regulations are in the hands of the EPA.
"They're trying to come in with something after the fact," Glotz said of the Columbus Supervisors proposed ordinance. "To come in with something after the fact is extremely difficult to do. I have cautioned the township all along that if we (Warren County) are able to come up with something it would most likely be applicable to anything in the future...the EPA already approved the injection well."
The EPA denied the petition for review and in a response filed by EPA Region III Assistant Regional Counsel Nina Rivera, that had yet to be officially approved by the EPA , said, "There is no geological evidence of faults or earthquake history that would justify denial of the permit applications."
Neither an injection well in Erie County or the "dozens" of injection wells permitted in Pennsylvania since 1985 "have experienced injection-related seismic activity," Rivera said in response.
"EPA acknowledges that some injection operations have been associated with causing earthquakes in other areas of the United States. Where this has occurred, the evidence suggest that these earthquakes have been caused by the over pressurization of the injection zone or by the migration of injected fluids into nearby geologic faults. All of the injection-related seismic activity has occurred in geologic formations in other parts of the United States," she said.
Peiffer would go on to obtain new legal representation with attorneys Emily Collins and Oday Salim. Stroup would represent himself in the appeal to the EPA appeals board.
The Columbus Township Supervisors adopted the "Liquid Waste Disposal Ordinance" as is, without any modifications on Aug. 16, 2011.
Several residents questioned how much township money would be spent defending the ordinance should it be challenged in court. One resident asked if a ceiling cap would be placed on defending the law.
"As far as a ceiling, I don't perceive this has getting out of hand or overgrown," Vice Chairman Dan Wood said. "We do have a couple of protection policies in place. One is through the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors...and they are providing us with assistance as we need it legal wise."
A day later, the supervisors said they would amend the ordinance and the language banning the disposal of liquid wastewater into township wells was not designed to target Bear Lake Properties or other oil and gas companies.
"This (ordinance) is designed to protect us from becoming a dumping ground," Wood said.
He added the ordinance was drafted in order to protect the township from any form of waste disposal, which Wood said includes several forms of waste not associated gas and oil drilling.
"This would stop anyone from coming in here and injecting waste into our wells," he said. "If a tuna company were to come in here and want to dump toxic waste, this would stop them."
The supervisors amended the ordinance in September 2011 to ensure no farmer in Columbus Township would come under fire from typical agricultural production.
"This was never meant to hurt farmers," Wood said.
By the end of the week the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Erie claiming the ordinance banning liquid wastewater generated from outside the township violates the Constitution's interstate commerce clause.
"The distinction made by the ordinance between liquid waste generated within the township and such waste generated outside of the township is arbitrary and does not serve any legitimate relationship to the health safety and welfare of the residents of the township," the lawsuit said.
"It wasn't a total surprise," Goodwill said. "They stand to make a lot of money from this...The next step is to take this to our solicitor and see what she has to say."
Shortly after the supervisors, under advisement from the townships solicitor Andrea Stapleford, unanimously voted to repeal the ordinance.
Rejected on appeal
The federal Environmental Appeals Board rejected permits on the disposal wells in Columbus Township, citing an inadequate account of drinking water wells within the area in July of 2012.
As part of its application, Bear Lake Properties had to provide the EPA with a map that included drinking water wells, and during the public hearing in March 2011, commenters questioned whether drinking water wells had been properly surveyed by the company and the EPA.
The EPA had Bear Lake Properties do another survey of water wells near the area after the public comment period. In their appeal, Stroup and Peiffer said that even after the survey, "the Region has still failed to survey water wells" and the EPA "...clearly erred by relying on inaccurate and insufficient information when making its permit determination."
In its decision, the EAB said the EPA did not adequately survey water wells but rejected five other issues in Stroup's and Peiffer's appeal, including the failure to account for the depth of water wells in Columbus Township, the number of as wells in the area, the population growth in the township and possible adverse economic impacts, the potential for earthquakes and accepting late-filed comments for the draft permit.
"In particular, the Region has utterly failed to clearly articulate its regulatory obligations or compile a record sufficient to assure the public that the region relied on accurate and appropriate data in satisfying its obligations. Indeed, the Region has failed to clearly articulate what data it relied upon in making its determination."
"Bear Lake Properties, LLC is very encouraged that the process is finally moving forward, and that now we have clear direction from the EAB as to the proper path to complete the permitting process," Bear Lake Properties President Karl Kimmich said in response.
Kimmich said confusion surrounds the "area of review", defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as the area surrounding the injection well that was determined to be an area of one-quarter mile radius around the wells.
Notice of proposal
In September of this year the EPA gave notice of its proposal to issue the final permits and reopened a public comment period until November 3.
"The EAB remanded the permits to the Region on one particular issue only, to clarify the record on the location of drinking water wells within the area of review for each of the proposed injection wells," the EPA said in its notice. "The Region has supplemented the administrative record and concluded that there are no known drinking water wells in the areas of review."
The next day nearly 100 residents gathered at the site of the wells to protest the EPA's decision.
"We're not against gas drilling, we need it," Brokenstraw Watershed Council Vice President Bill Kibler said. "But the premise of our organization is let's do it correctly, let's do it a way that's not going to affect a lot of people. We should've learned our lesson years ago from the '70s and '80s that you don't throw this stuff in the ground and hope it's going to go away. It's not going to go away."