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The Associated Press November 22, 2011, 10:57AM ET

Environmentalists: Ohio gas drill rules fall short

Proponents and industry groups say proposed new regulations on gas and oil drilling in Ohio would be some of the toughest in the nation if adopted, but environmentalists and local officials complain they don't go far enough, especially in protecting public health.

The rules cover aspects of well drilling such as the type of steel and concrete that must be used in wells, how to drill near active underground mines and what can go into the chemical-laced fluid used to blast through underground shale formations to free up the gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics say fracking could poison water supplies, but the natural gas industry says it's been used safely for decades.

"Everyone's got an emergency response plan, and the key to that is well construction and design in the beginning," said Ron Whitmire, spokesman for the Houston -based EnerVest, the largest oil and gas operation in Ohio.

"There are multiple layers of steel and cement protecting all of the drilling fluid from getting out," he said.

The focus on well drilling leaves some environmental groups feeling that oil and gas companies are skirting the issue of public health, including how the waste fluid is disposed of and the lack of disclosure of what is in that fluid.

"I think the industry has fought really hard to focus the debate around the injection of frack fluid into the well. The science is still out on that," said Julian Boggs, program associate with Environment Ohio. "A lot of the problems surrounding fracking are what you do with the massive amounts of fluid coming out of the well."

In the past, wastewater was processed at sewage treatment plants. There is still one treatment facility, but now the water can be disposed of by injecting it back underground or recycling it to be used again.

Boggs said the fluid can only be recycled so often before its needs to be disposed of, and there are concerns with fluid injected underground leaking into drinking water or causing earthquakes.

Fracking fluid injected back into the earth for disposal has been linked to increased earthquakes in seismic activity-prone areas in Oklahoma and northeast Ohio, among others.

The oil and gas industry has said there have been no recorded incidents of disposed fluid tainting water supplies.

Heidi Hetzel-Evans, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' division that oversees oil and gas drilling, said the state is known for having some of the strictest standards. She said it would likely be early next year before the new proposed rules are adopted. The department intends to hold hearings for public comment before adopting the rules.

As for Ohio's regulations being some of the strongest in the country, Boggs said that shows a failing of national regulations -- not a triumph for Ohio.

Whitmire with EnerVest said his company operates in 12 states, and Ohio has a "very strong regulatory regime."

However, Columbus-based environmental lawyer Rick Sahli says Ohio's rules are actually weaker than Pennsylvania's -- a state plagued with regulatory problems.

"In addition to the standards being weaker, I think they've very vague," Sahli said. "There are a lot of undefined terms that are just industry jargon. You'd better define it, or a judge is going to have a hard time understanding what's going on."

He also took issue with what he called a weak regulatory structure that gave a lot of power to state inspectors but put in place no real guidelines for training them.

Environmentalists are also concerned about loopholes in reporting what chemicals are used in drilling.

The Columbus Dispatch reviewed documents posted on the Ohio Department of Natural Resource's website and found that of the 84 fracturing products listed, 11 contained at least one ingredient that was kept secret by listing it as a "proprietary compound."

Among the compounds identified by drilling companies were naphthalene, which destroys red blood cells, and ethylene glycol, which can damage kidneys, the nervous system, lungs and the heart, the newspaper reported.

"Lack of disclosure of these chemicals doesn't allow medical professionals to know how to treat someone who has been contaminated and communities don't know how to monitor water supplies if they don't know what to look for," said Heather Cantino, chairwoman of the Buckeye Forest Council. "It makes it impossible to protect a community."

Ohio Oil and Gas Association Vice President Tom Stewart told The Dispatch that his organization wouldn't object to full disclosure of fracking chemicals, but drillers might be opposed.

Cantino said she wants the state to require all drilling operations to log the total amount of fluid they use, the volume of chemicals involved and how deep they were injected underground. She also wants companies to be required to conduct air and water quality monitoring around drilling sites.

Others want the drilling to be banned altogether.

"Ultimately, fracking wastewater should be regulated as hazardous waste," said Environment Ohio's Boggs. "If the industry thinks ensuring the safety of the public and the environment is too expensive or unfeasible, then that's probably a good sign we shouldn't be doing fracking at all."

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