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Water use for 'fracking' raises environmentalists' ire

Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 09:06

Environmentalists are not convinced there is no problem, especially in light of the fact that Ohio could be looking at tens of thousands of wells in the coming years. And those wells will be fracked multiple times over the years.

When fresh water goes down into the well, it comes out polluted with dissolved solids, toxic chemicals used in the fracking process, heavy metals and even low levels of radiation from the rock.

A few companies like Chesapeake Energy are starting to recycle that wastewater and reuse it in future drilling. A Canadian company wants to drill with propane, not water. Both ideas would require less fresh water.

But at the moment, most of the wastewater is injected below ground in Ohio's 176 injection wells for permanent disposal.

That means that the water is lost from the fresh water cycle, said critic Sara Rollet Gosman, a water resources attorney with the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Unlike water used by agriculture and industry, water used in fracking disappears from the hydrological cycle and cannot be used again, she said.

That's where the numbers take on new meaning.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is correct _ that somewhere between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water were used in 2011 alone in fracking an estimated 35,000 wells across the country _ much of that water may be forever removed from life cycle of the earth's surface.

"It's different than other traditional water withdrawals," she said. "It is a 100 percent consumptive use. The water is basically pretty much lost and gone forever."

One environmental group, Food & Water Watch, has called for a ban on fracking because of the growing threat to drinking-water supplies.

Fracking poses "serious, long-term risks to vital water resources," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a group based in Washington, D.C., in a statement in March.

Another group, American Rivers, has expressed concern about fracking and its impact on streams.

At present, drillers are finding multiple sources, from free water in Ohio streams to buying from community water systems.

Chesapeake Energy tries to get its water as close as possible to the well to minimize transport costs.

"We look to all potential water sources whether it be from landowners, businesses or municipalities," said Chesapeake's Kenworthy.

Companies are contracting with a number of Ohio municipalities. In February, Chesapeake signed a five-year contract with Steubenville, Ohio, to buy as much as 700,000 gallons a day from a reservoir that is filled with water pumped from the Ohio River.

The Oklahoma-based firm and the No. 1 player in Ohio's Utica shale pays $5 per 1,000 gallons of raw river, treated wastewater or treated drinking water. That means that Steubenville earns up to $120,000 a month in Chesapeake water sales.

Such sales now make it impossible to track how much water drillers are using in Ohio because the water shows up in state data as municipal water usage, not for drilling, said environmental advocate Teresa Mills of Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Columbus, Ohio.

"I don't see how we will ever get the true picture of how much water is being destroyed by this industry," she said.

Under Senate Bill 315, Ohio's newly passed law on drilling, drillers will have to disclose their water source and how much water they use for the first time, the state says.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources now typically meets with drillers before drilling begins and discusses planned water usage, said spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans.

But plans are often sketchy, and under current rules, drillers do not have to tell the state what the water source or volume is, she said.

Drillers also are getting well water from landowners with whom they have leases, although the counties in eastern Ohio where the drilling into the Utica shale is under way are poor for ground water yields. The drillers now want to tap into larger, dependable lakes and reservoirs in eastern Ohio.

Clendening Reservoir holds an estimated 8.6 billion gallons. The watershed district agreed to sell up to 11 million gallons or 0.12 percent of the reservoir's capacity to Gulfport Energy. Gulfport agreed to pay $9 per 1,000 gallons.

The village of Cadiz, Ohio, gets its drinking water from the district via Tappan Lake in Harrison County. It pays 10 cents per 1,000 gallons. It has then been selling its water at a much higher price to Chesapeake Energy. The village wants to buy more water from Tappan to sell to drillers.

The watershed district has asked the U.S. Geological Survey to determine how much "excess" water it might have available to sell to drillers from three of its reservoirs.

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