The geology of the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes makes the land around them particularly suitable for an ugly task: hazardous waste disposal. There, hundreds of injection wells, each up to 10,000 feet deep, contain the chemical leftovers from steel mills, wastewater treatment, and more.
Soon, one such well will be home to the MCHM-laced water from West Virginia's recent chemical spill. There, the toxic waste will stay contained underground—we hope, at least, because no one can say for sure.
The Associated Press reported on the fate of this contaminated water in a little-noticed seven-sentence story earlier this month. This is how the remnants of a massive chemical spill made possible by lax regulation get quietly buried in the Earth. But over at Next City, Sarah Goodyear has dug deeper into injection wells, and we think this story deserves a little more attention for the light it sheds on toxic waste disposal.
The 60,000 gallons of contaminated water—vacuumed up from the Elk River after the spill—will be trucked over state lines and injected into Vickery Environmental's wells. The company currently operates four Class I injection wells in Vickery, Ohio, and deals with waste from as far away as Tampa. The tainted water will be shot into the earth, under multiple layers of impermeable rock, into the sandstone of the Mount Simon formation.
Injection wells are considered the safest—or, put another way, the least worst—method of disposing of hazardous waste we don't want to dump in rivers or on land. The toxins aren't supposed to seep through impermeable rock layers. But as a in-depth ProPublica investigation into injection wells has revealed, it happens—even with Class I wells that are the most tightly regulated.
At two other Class I wells in Ohio, for example, the deadly chemical phenol had risen 1,400 feet through rock, threatening aquifers. Such a leak is rare, but it illustrates the unintended consequences of punching deep holes into the earth. Reality is always more complicated, as ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten explains:
Rock layers aren't always neatly stacked as they appear in engineers' sketches. They often fold and twist over on themselves. Waste injected into such formations is more likely to spread in lopsided, unpredictable ways than in a uniform cone. It is also likely to channel through spaces in the rock as pressure forces it along the weakest lines.
Injection well for fracking fluids near Youngstown, Ohio. AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
Injection wells in Ohio have made headlines recently as the favored dumping ground for fracking chemicals. Leftover fluids from natural gas extraction are also injected into the earth, but these Class II wells are less tightly regulated. In Ohio, Class II wells are overseen not by the EPA but by the state's Department of Natural Resources, which is seen as friendlier to businesses. Ohio has just ten Class I wells but about 200 Class II, and the number is steadily growing.
Along with the rise of injection wells comes increasing concern about earthquakes. Pumping fluid underground changes the pressure and lubricates faults. Swarms of earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio have now been linked to fracking—to both the gas extraction wells and the wastewater injections wells. With all this uncertainty about injections wells, regulators might err on the side of caution.
As the national media has turned its eye away from West Virginia, this contaminated water is the last physical evidence of an episode illustrating the dangers of lax environmental regulation. (Except, of course, the possible longterm health effects borne by residents.) Rather than let this episode now lie forgotten underground, we might take a lesson from it. There's no question that drilling into the earth has consequences, though just how severe these consequences are, no one really knows.
And we can only make educated guesses as to what will happen 50, 500, or 5,000 years from now—when it's very possible that the toxic remnants of industrialized 21st century life could rise up to haunt us. [Next City, ProPublica]
Top image: an injection well being drilled by a rig. AP Photo/Mead Gruver