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After Chemical Spill, West Virginia Wastewater Ends Up Beneath Ohio

A screenshot of an animation explaining injection wells. (water.EPA.gov)
A screenshot of an animation explaining injection wells. (water.EPA.gov)

Earlier this month came news that tainted river water from a West Virginia chemical spill is finding its way deep below Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch first reported about 50-thousand gallons of water containing the coal cleaning chemical, MCHM, was pumped into an injection well in Sandusky County. It is the same chemical that spilled from an above-ground tank in West Virginia, causing drinking-water bans, and licorice smelling water all the way to Cincinnati. To find out more about how and why MCHM is here, ideastream's Tony Ganzer spoke with Dina Pierce, spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

PIERCE: “The wastewater that came to Ohio—that went into the underground injection wells—is largely river water. This was basically vacuumed up out of the river containing some of this chemical during the clean-up process, and was then transported to Vickery Environmental in Sandusky County to be injected in their Class I injection wells. And this waste is so diluted, the chemical that’s in it, it actually was not considered hazardous waste, but to be on the safe-side they injected it into these wells.”

GANZER: “When we inject something into a well like this, we know it goes deep down, but how safe is it to pump this stuff into the ground? How do we know it’s not going to get into the groundwater, for example?”

PIERCE: “The Class I wells specifically are located anywhere from about 1,700 feet to up to about 10,000 feet deep, and that is several hundred feet at a minimum below the lower parts of the drinking water aquifers, which are really close to the ground’s surface. Plus these wells are highly engineered—they have multiple layers of casing and concrete to keep material from leaking out of the actual wells going down. And these wells are also kept under pressure, and they are monitored 24-hours a day. So if there’s a pressure loss, the facility would know about it. In the case of Vickery I would also add, the Ohio EPA has an inspector on site 40 hours a week. So it’s a very highly monitored facility.”

GANZER: “A lot of activists ask, why is Ohio taking this stuff? Why is it our wells, why do we have these injection wells? Do you have any response to this question of why use, why’s it come here?”

PIERCE: “First of all, specific to the Vickery facility, they are a commercial facility, and they are allowed to accept both hazardous and non-hazardous liquid waste from anywhere, just like any other business can do business with other businesses and industries inside and outside of Ohio. From a legal stand-point, just like with solid waste and other types of waste, it’s considered interstate commerce and that falls under the U.S. Constitution and can only be regulated through Congress. So Ohio can’t prevent deny out of state waste from coming into Ohio, and other states can’t prevent Ohio waste from going into those states. It’s a legal process, and in the case of Class I wells in Ohio the geology is right in Ohio to have these kinds of wells and it’s very highly regulated.”

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.