Prove your humanity

10/2/2023: This story has been updated to include comments from the Allegheny County Health Department.

The U.S. EPA approved an injection well this week for the disposal of fracking waste in the Pittsburgh suburb of Plum over the objections of some nearby residents. 

Westmoreland County-based Penneco Environmental Solutions already operates one injection well in Plum – the Sedat 3A – at 1815 Old Leechburg Road. It had asked the EPA to allow it to build another injection well next to it at another gas well that was drilled in 2004 and doesn’t produce much gas anymore – the Sedat 4A. 

Neighbors objected. 

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Katie Sheehan talks into a microphone at a public hearing

Katie Sheehan testifies at an EPA hearing in Plum, Pa., on August 30, 2022 against the Sedat 4A injection well proposed by Penneco Environmental Resources, LLC. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Among them was Katie Sheehan. She lives across the street from her parents’ house, which is just down the hill from the injection well site. Her parents began having problems with their springwater around the time the injection well experienced mechanical problems in 2021. 

“My parents lived there 40 some years, never had an issue with their natural spring until the first injection well went in,” said Sheehan. “And so the second one, it’ll just be diagonal from their property.” 

EPA found that during the mechanical incident in 2021, “at no point” was there a loss of fluid at the injection well. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found drinking water supplies near the Sedat 3-A well “were not adversely affected.”

Sheehan’s parents have put in an expensive water filtration system and are trucking in drinking water. “We’re afraid that our water will be contaminated at the well source here,” Sheehan said. 

Sheehan says she has concerns about air pollution from truck traffic and volatile chemicals at the second well. The current well averages around 20 to 30 truckloads of wastewater a day, according to the company.

A spokesperson for the Allegheny County Health Department, which regulates air quality in the county, said in an email that the agency had sent inspectors to the well after receiving four complaints from nearby residents, but the inspectors “did not detect any strong odors beyond those that were very close to operating equipment, as one would expect.”

Sheehan has gone to several meetings to protest the new permit. 

“I feel like it went to deaf ears. It didn’t matter. Every effort we’ve taken to stop the first one, the second one has gotten us nowhere,” she said.

The EPA said it sent an inspector to the Sedat 3-A well this summer, where it passed a mechanical integrity test. 

A toxic mix injected deep underground

Oil and gas wastewater is produced during fracking and contains salts, chemicals and metals. The EPA says it can be toxic and radioactive.

Ben Davis, Penneco’s chief operating officer, says the fracking industry in Pennsylvania produces millions of barrels of wastewater a year, and though some of it is recycled, much isn’t. And it has to be disposed of somewhere. 

“The (fracked) wells are of such enormous proportion and the volume of fluid being used to fracture them so enormous that there has to be a location or a place to properly dispose of the fluids that can’t be recycled,” Davis said.

Federal regulation largely prohibits disposing of this waste in treatment plants that discharge to rivers and streams. 

“By putting this fluid in injection wells, we’re actually keeping it out of the surface waters and protecting our streams and waterways,” he said. 

The new injection well, 1800 feet deep, is in a geologic formation that can store ample amounts of oil and gas waste, according to Davis. He said it’s bounded on the top and bottom by dense shale layers that should keep the liquid in place. 

Concerns about more wells coming to Pa.

Gillian Graber of Protect P-T, a local environmental group, says her group is concerned there will be a proliferation of injection wells in the region.

“This is just really, really concerning for the future of an area that has seen the brunt of contamination of extractive industries for years,” Graber says. (Protect PT receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.)

Ohio has over 200 injection wells and accepts millions of gallons of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste. This month, Ohio regulators suspended injections into four wells after finding they presented an “imminent danger” because injected fluids had migrated into nearby oil and gas wells. 

Another set of wells in Ohio was suspended earlier this year after repeated releases of toxic brine on the surface. 

Why Frack Wastewater Injected Underground Doesn’t Always Stay There

“We’ve seen what has happened in Ohio with…migration of fluids from one injection well to two conventional wells that are nearby,” Graber says. “And we know that this stuff moves.”

Graber points out that the injection wells in Plum would be a few thousand feet south of the Allegheny River, a drinking water source for hundreds of thousands in the city of Pittsburgh. 

“Should there be any type of spill or release or contamination of an aquifer, it could very well go to, you know, the drinking water for the entire Pittsburgh region,” Graber said. 

But, according to the EPA, injection wells are required to be monitored to ensure injected fluids don’t migrate near drinking water sources. 

The new EPA permit isn’t the end of the story with this injection well. Plum Borough and Protect PT have sued to block the well in state court, claiming that it violates the township’s zoning ordinance. A hearing in that lawsuit is set for October 10.