Residents of Mayfield Township near Kingsley got creative a few years ago when they learned of a proposal to inject liquid industrial waste into a disposal well located in a field near the corner of of M-37 and M-113.
The well had been approved to take brine from oil wells, but many area residents didn’t want industrial waste from a landfill pumped deep underground, below their houses and farm fields.
Phil Scott, chairman of the Mayfield Township planning commission, said the township consulted attorneys and experts and found a way to wrest some control over what happened at the well from state and federal regulators.
The township enacted an ordinance to require a special use permit for the disposal of industrial waste and amid public opposition, the owner of the well, Team Solutions of Kalkaska, backed off plans to dispose liquid waste from the shuttered Glen’s Landfill at the site.
Fast-forward a couple of years and now a different kind of waste -- flowback fluid from deep-shale hydrological fracking -- is being pumped into the well, and this time, state officials say there is nothing locals can do about it.
LOCAL SAY OR NO LOCAL SAY?
There’s no local control because Part 615 of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, as well as the state law that enables local zoning, both specifically exempt oil and gas operations from township or county control, said Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas & Minerals.
In addition, Henderson said, injection disposal wells are safe and well-regulated by the state and locals should not be worried about leaks or contamination.
Christopher Grobbel, of Grobbel Environmental & Planning Associates, who helped Mayfield Township design its ordinance to regulate industrial waste, disagrees on both counts.
Grobbel believes it’s an open question whether local governments can have a say in oil and gas operations.
“There’s a strong argument there because they don’t even know what’s in that stuff,” Grobbel said, referring to fracking waste. “I think it’s a pretty elementary reading of the regulation to say that local governments are completely boxed out.”
It’s a question that’s also come up in townships where natural gas drilling causes frequent heavy truck traffic that crumbles roads. Do townships have any means to get drillers to pay for damage they cause on the roads? Grobbel said he’s working with a township in Ogemaw County grappling with exactly that question.
Grobbel said he also believes state regulators downplay the environmental dangers endemic to deep injection wells. He points to a smoking gun -- the state has refused to keep a public, central database of oil and gas contamination available since 1995.
STATE SAYS WELL IS SAFE
Scott says locals have watched in the past year or so as activity at the Mayfield Township disposal well has ramped up.
He said Mayfield Township receives the bulk of the fracking waste produced in the region -- and that’s a lot of it. At least one of the fracking wells in Kalkaska County has used around 21 million gallons of fresh water to frack, three times as much as is commonly used. Around a third of what’s used comes back as waste.
The lack of input from township and questions about what’s in the fracking waste have upset some residents, Scott said. State and federal law enables natural gas drillers to keep secret the chemicals they include in fracking fluid.
“There are chemicals that go into fracking, so you have really no idea what’s being put in that well, and that well’s really not that deep,” Scott said. He said the well is 1,725 feet deep. “People are concerned, obviously.”
Henderson said much of the waste from the Encana Corporation wells in Kalkaska goes to Mayfield Township and another disposal well in Kalkaska County.
But he said Encana has disclosed the kind of chemicals it’s using -- fracking fluid is over 99.5 percent water and sand, plus around a half percent chemicals -- and regulators have a good idea what’s going into the ground.
“We know the classes of materials that goes into it,” Henderson said. “Encana is not keeping anything secret.”
Further, he said, state and federal regulators make sure disposal wells like the one in Mayfield Township regularly pass mechanical integrity tests. The wells are checked for leaks, there is secondary containment around the well, and, in Mayfield Township, there are monitoring wells around the site to test groundwater.
“If there is a spill or anything, we can detect it long before it gets away,” Henderson said.
NO CONTAMINATION DATABASE
Of course the DEQ and the industry say disposal wells are safe, Grobbel said.
“That’s been the DEQ and the industry line for decades,” he said. “We know there are contamination sites associated with oil and gas. There are hundreds and hundreds.”
He said the state, under pressure from the oil and gas industry, stopped keeping a list of contaminated sites in 1995. Grobbel said he only hears about oil and gas contamination when he is called in by a landowner who needs to sue the state to get a site cleaned up or he hears about it anecdotally.
Hal Fitch, the DEQ’s supervisor of wells, said the state keeps decentralized records of contamination sites that he agreed were not easy for the public to access. He said the state has tentative plans to create a central database in the interest of transparency.
Grobbel said when Henderson and other state officials talk about the safety of disposal wells, they focus on the safety of the actual well head. But most of the contamination happens elsewhere in the work stream, he said -- in the pipeline or at the holding containers or during loading.
Much of the threat comes from human error, not the integrity of the well, he said.
To illustrate the point, Grobbel noted the Mayfield Township well has failed in the past.
Around a decade ago, he said, a plume of brine chloride from the well was discovered in area groundwater.
Henderson said test wells were installed in the area to monitor groundwater as a result of that breach.
MAYFIELD UNLIKELY TO FIGHT
At this point, it appears unlikely Mayfield Township has the appetite to fight the fracking waste disposal.
With the passage of the ordinance that required a special use permit for industrial waste, officials thought they had found a way to oversee disposal wells without going to court.
And now it appears it would take a court fight to challenge fracking fluid disposal.
Scott said it was a desire to stay out of court that caused the township to pass the industrial waste ordinance in the first place. They had watched as the Friends of the Jordan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit to fight a disposal well near Alba.
“We don’t have that kind of money; we don’t have those kind of resources by any stretch of the imagination,” Scott said.
Despite the fracking waste, Scott said he is pleased at least the township was able to regulate industrial waste.
Since the passage of that, Scott said he’s been contacted by officials from several townships, including in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties and downstate, who are interested in the ordinance.