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Fracking waste wells owned by an Ohio senator are leaking. The state paid $1.3 million for the cleanup

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Injection wells owned by an Ohio state senator spewed fracking waste deep underground in Noble County before bursting through the surface at an oil well miles away, prompting a $1.3 million cleanup effort required.

The state paid to clean up the mess in January 2021, but didn't ask Sen. Brian Chavez's Deeprock Disposal Solutions for a penny to cover the costs. Instead, state regulators charged the owners of the abandoned production well for using the brine as a smokestack to get to the surface before it contaminated the surrounding land and water.

State ethics forms show Deeprock is owned by Chavez, a Republican who was appointed to the seat in December. He owns several oil and gas companies and reported investments in several others.

In June 2021, Gov. Mike DeWine appointed Chavez to the Oil and Gas Commission, a five-commissioner panel that reviews appeals of ODNR orders against the industry. Chavez represented “major oil companies” until his appointment to the Senate.

That same year, brine from deep rock injection wells shot out of the ground like a broken sprinkler head.

On Jan. 5, 2021, state records showed that Deeprock Disposal Solutions acquired two wells storing high-pressure brine—the toxic, sometimes radioactive byproduct of fracking operations—thousands of feet underground. At this point, the brine had already reached at least three production wells in the last decade, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Just weeks after the installation, on Jan. 24, a production well owned by West Virginia-based Genesis Resources began spewing brine at a rate of up to 42 gallons per minute, threatening to reach two nearby rivers and a stream. It took days for ODNR officials and contractors to plug the leak. Records show officials removed more than 362,000 gallons of liquid from a nearby stream and that 450 fish, salamanders, frogs and other animals died nearby.

The Genesis well had not produced oil for years. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reports obtained through a public records request state that “Genesis Resources was not involved in the response and had left the scene.”

This was just one of five incidents in which Deeprock's brine leaked from nearby production wells between 2010 and 2023. The releases occurred 1.5 miles northeast of Deeprock's injection wells and up to 5 miles southwest. State permits for these wells only allow it to go into the ground within a half-mile radius.

Two years after the Genesis disaster, EPA officials discovered that another production well a few miles away was “releasing oil field brine into a nearby intermittent stream.” Only then did ODNR shut down Deeprock's operations and officially attribute the five leaks to Deeprock's operations.

In January 2023, instead of Deeprock, the department ordered Genesis to repay the $1.3 million the state spent on cleanup of the 2021 well blowout. Genesis argued that Deeprock created the mess and should pay to clean it up. Lawyers for both the company and an insurer suspected that ODNR had acted negligently in approving the injection wells in the first place.

ODNR responded that it was “legally irrelevant” where the brine came from. What matters is that the brine came up through the abandoned Genesis oil well like a straw, without which it could not have come to the surface. If Genesis believes this is Deeprock's fault, the company can always file a lawsuit.

In accordance with state law, Deeprock posted a $15,000 bond and provided certificates of insurance totaling $15 million in coverage, ODNR said.

Many people in rural southeastern Ohio rely on private wells for drinking water. ODNR spokesman Andy Chow said there is no reason to believe the water is contaminated and there are no mapped groundwater wells within a half-mile of the affected production wells. The ODNR is not aware of any ongoing monitoring, he said. But Dave Yoxtheimer, a professor at Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said the pattern of spills should warrant water testing of nearby private wells.

“I would get my water tested if I lived within a mile or so,” he said.

Chavez declined to be interviewed or answer specific questions about the incidents. He issued a statement through a Senate spokesman.

“As an expert in the field, a former member of the Oil and Gas Commission, and a responsible operator, Senator Chavez puts the safety of the public and the environment first,” the statement said. “From a petroleum engineer to a welder on one platform, these hard-working professionals have families who also want clean air and clean water, no matter what radical political activists and today's media try to tell you. This industry is needed now more than ever as it responsibly produces reliable and affordable energy that the so-called “green energy” political lobby cannot provide.”

Leaks

An abandoned natural gas production well owned by Genesis Resources spews brine on January 24, 2021, which the ODNR later determined came from a Class II natural gas injection well owned by State Senator Brian Chavez. (ODNR)

Fracking – technically known as hydraulic fracturing – involves spraying large amounts of a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release methane from shale rock thousands of feet beneath. The process creates “flowback” brine as a byproduct, which can absorb some of the radioactive elements from below. This toxic brew must either be treated or disposed of properly.

There are 250 Class II injection wells in Ohio, each storing millions of gallons of brine underground at high pressure. Basic physics and geology explain the splashy episodes. When fluid is injected into the subsurface at very high pressure, it naturally wants to enter the low-pressure line of the production well.

“The surprising thing to me is that they allow injection at such high pressure that you can see fluids traveling miles away, which is quite a distance for an injection well,” said Yoxtheimer, a professor at Penn State University.

While Ohio law requires producing well owners to plug their wells after production is complete, the Genesis well site in question is just one of an estimated tens of thousands in the state that are no longer used for oil or natural gas production and is the largest Part is considered abandoned.

On January 3, 2023, the ODNR formally ordered Genesis to reimburse the state for $1.3 million in cleanup costs. Six days later, the ODNR suspended operations at Deeprock due to its history of brine discharges. Somewhat contradictorily, however, the agency did not demand any money from the company.

“Reading between the lines, it certainly seems to be what ODNR is saying: people [Deeprock] “That’s what caused the problem,” Yoxtheimer said. “But then again, we gave you a permit that allows you to cause the problem.”

Appeal

When asked why ODNR was both blaming Deeprock for the mess and asking someone else to pay for it, Chow replied, “Based on Ohio law, we have required them to reimburse us.” He did not specify which one Law it is.

Genesis appealed to the Oil and Gas Commission in February 2023, which has not yet made a final ruling. In June 2023, the commission voted 4-0 to deny a request from Genesis to stay ODNR's $1.3 million reimbursement order while it considers the appeal. Chavez has withdrawn.

In December of that year, Chavez left the commission to work as a senator. Genesis has since alleged that ODNR refused to release documents relating to Deeprock's issuance of permits and its investigation, which led to Deeprock being blamed for the brine spill. Genesis questioned whether ODNR was negligent in issuing the permits or failed to warn nearby well owners of the potential dangers.

“One of the big mysteries here is why the state is prosecuting us so hard and doesn’t seem to be prosecuting Deeprock,” Kevin Maloney, a Genesis attorney, said in an interview.

ODNR argued that all that matters is that Genesis failed to plug its well when it stopped producing oil. And that well-leaked brine. Genesis can sue Deeprock in court if it wants, but ODNR said its job is to get the closest party to clean up the mess.

“Instead, Genesis simply points the finger at nearby injection wells and argues that if the brine spill came from those wells, the company itself cannot be held liable for any subsequent problems,” ODNR lawyers wrote.

appointment

Ohio Senator Brian Chavez, second from right, poses with members of his family in the Ohio Senate chamber. (Source: Ohio Senate)

Chavez earns at least $100,000 a year at both Deeprock and Utica Assets LLC, ethics forms show. He also reported that he earned between $50,000 and $100,000 at Deep Rock Investments LLC and the same from his work as vice president of Condevco. And he owns common stock in Devon Energy Corp, Diamondback Energy, Halliburton and Marathon Petroleum worth at least $1,000 each.

He recently appeared on a podcast hosted by Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and his press team. Chavez said he took over a company founded by his in-laws that operated 400 vertical oil and gas wells.

In an interview with the Senate President, he downplayed the risks of climate change and pointed out that although gas emits carbon dioxide, this also happens when people breathe or open a can of soda. Carbon dioxide in the air isn't a bad thing, he said.

“If we look back and look back at historical time, we realize that the dinosaurs were so big because there was a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the Earth was warmer,” he said. “The plants were bigger. They didn't have to work so hard to survive. They were big. The earth is constantly changing and we need to understand that and not just point fingers at short-term solutions or short-term crises.”

Jake Zuckerman covers state politics and policy for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.

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