East Palestine Wastewater Galvanizes Community Against Injection Well Disposal

In Coshocton, more than 70 miles from East Palestine, wastewater from the accident has shed light on how little say local officials have in underground disposal

click to enlarge COSHOCTON, OH — JANUARY 25: Lucy Bryan Malenke, a freelance writer and local resident, with the white buildings and tanks of the Buckeye Brine injection facility on Airport Road in the background, January 25, 2024, in Coshocton, Ohio. - (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)
(Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)
COSHOCTON, OH — JANUARY 25: Lucy Bryan Malenke, a freelance writer and local resident, with the white buildings and tanks of the Buckeye Brine injection facility on Airport Road in the background, January 25, 2024, in Coshocton, Ohio.

It’s been a year since the East Palestine train derailment, and the accident’s impact stretches well beyond the borders of the eastern-Ohio village. About 75 miles away, a drilling company is using a deep injection well to dispose of wastewater from the crash’s cleanup efforts, despite staunch local opposition.

That water has gone through extensive treatment, and officials insist it’s non-hazardous. Even the well’s neighbors acknowledge it’s probably safe, but they object to having no say in the process.

In an open letter, local organizers and elected leaders argue the community should be involved in the siting and permitting process. They also push for more transparency when it comes to oversight and greater compensation for communities that accept wastewater disposal.

The letter

Buckeye Brine is an unassuming facility just outside Coshocton city limits. There are no derricks rising and falling in rhythm, just a handful of big white tanks and a steady stream of 18 wheelers. But like an iceberg, what matters is what’s happening beneath the surface. Beneath those tanks, three injection wells plunge thousands of feet underground.

The company declined to speak to Ohio Capital Journal for this story, but their website explains how their operation works. The idea is to pump wastewater into porous rock formations deep below the water table, with an impermeable ‘cap’ rock formation between that waste and drinking water. Buckeye’s website states, “more than a MILE of rock separates the injection zone from the lower most groundwater.” They argue other approaches to waste treatment simply move harmful substances around, while injection removes them from the water cycle more or less permanently.

One of their wells is what’s known as a Class 2 well, which carries waste product from oil and gas extraction. The other two — the source of local frustration — are Class 1 non-hazardous wells.

Last August, the company announced it would accept treated wastewater from the East Palestine train derailment. Local officials pushed back but found there was nothing they could do.

“The East Palestine wastewater coming into Coshocton is something that has really galvanized people, and I think, opened people’s eyes in particular, to how little say our community has over what wastes get disposed of here,” Lucy Bryan Malenke explained.

“The Ohio Revised Code makes it clear that municipalities have zero authority over injection wells — that the sole authority lies with the state agencies,” she added.

After more than a decade working as a professor, Malenke and her husband settled in the area to raise their family. Her husband has roots in Coshocton and they’d been spending summers nearby for years.

More recently she’s organized local officials, business owners, and concerned residents to sign on to a letter urging state lawmakers to take legislative action. It offers a detailed set of proposals for determining how many wells can be drilled, where they can be located, and how much material they can inject underground.

But the heart of their pitch is pretty simple: locals should have input, oversight should be transparent, and the community should be compensated.

“We have no say in what’s coming,” she said. “We have no ability to regulate this, to limit this, to monitor this.”

While the East Palestine wastewater disposal spurred Malenke to action, she stressed her primary concern is that lack of local input — not the wastewater itself. “I mean I’d still prefer it not be coming here,” she said while acknowledging it’s probably no worse than the other waste Buckeye Brine is sending underground.

She argued the choice of location is one more example in Appalachia’s long history of industrial extraction and dumping. “They don’t go where rich and powerful people live,” she said. “They go in communities like ours.”

Standing across the street from Buckeye Brine, she said, “whatever amount of money it would take to get the big industry folks, the folks who work at the EPA or whatever, to put one of these in their backyard? That’s how much money we should be getting. That’s what the true cost is.”

And Malenke is quick to note her letter’s signers run the gamut politically. It’s got the backing of Coshocton City Council and the Coshocton County Board of Commissioners which include elected Republicans and Democrats. Malenke argued that kind of buy-in matters.

“This approach is something that, whether people are conservative or liberal, these are things that we can agree upon,” she said. “Because we all love this place and we all call it our home.”

click to enlarge COSHOCTON, OH — JANUARY 25: Mark Mills, the mayor of Coshocton in his office at City Hall, January 25, 2024, in Coshocton, Ohio. - (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)
(Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)
COSHOCTON, OH — JANUARY 25: Mark Mills, the mayor of Coshocton in his office at City Hall, January 25, 2024, in Coshocton, Ohio.

The mayor

Coshocton’s mayor, Mark Mills, is a Democrat, but said he’s a bit allergic to a moniker like ‘environmentalist.’ He signed Malenke’s letter because, he said, he wants to make sure his constituents can drink the water. But the three-and-a-half-foot Northern Pike mounted on his wall is another big reason he’s concerned about local waterways.

Sitting in his office, though, he explained he’s also thinking about the city’s long-term financial future.

“We are becoming a regional water supplier for the whole county and hopefully even maybe into Muskingum County ultimately,” Mills said. “So protecting that for the next generation and the next generation is really why I have a passion about not letting this happen.”

Coshocton County sits just to the east of Licking County, where Intel is building massive semiconductor fab. That plant, and the influx of people and infrastructure it brings with it, will place even greater demands on local water supplies. With those burdens right around the corner, Mills can’t understand why state lawmakers aren’t taking every precaution to protect an asset like the local aquifer.

“We’re spending millions of dollars — the state is helping us — to build out a regional water supply, while at the same time letting people dump waste into the ground,” Mills said.

Like Malenke, he acknowledged that after treatment and testing, the East Palestine wastewater is likely safe. But he contends there’s no guarantee it, or other waste products, are safe long term. “Common sense tells you if you pump enough of anything into the ground,” he said, “something ultimately is going to happen.”

The injection wells remind Mills of local coal mines. People in the area began mining it in the 1800s, and that industry provided jobs and power in the region for more than 150 years. But the local coal fired power plant closed for good in 2020, after a 15-year decommissioning process. Old mine shafts continue to present problems for surface water, and former strip mines are difficult to develop.

“When you look at that,” Mills said, “it’s like why don’t we learn from the past, and learn from our mistakes?”

Mills argued the potential benefits just don’t outweigh the risks. He worries if there’s a major accident the company will declare bankruptcy and leave. Regardless of who handles recovery efforts, Mills said, residents will hold him accountable.

“If there was something that I could do, I would stop it right now, but I can’t,” he said. “And that’s the thing that is crazy to me.”

“How are you held responsible for something that you tried to stop?” he asked.

State response

Ohio Capital Journal reached out to Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees Class 1 injection wells. The governor’s office didn’t respond, but the Ohio EPA sent a written statement.

“Ohio EPA is aware of the concerns regarding the Buckeye Brine facility in Coshocton and is currently working on a response to comments received during the public meeting and comments received during the public comment period in 2023 as part of the permit to drill applications,” a spokesman wrote.

But that permit has to do with a proposed fourth well at Buckeye Brine’s current location. Assuming the company gets the green light to drill, there will be a similar public comment period before it’s granted a permit to operate. But the agency’s decision on those permits won’t halt disposal of the East Palestine wastewater.

The Ohio EPA went on to note that it is in the midst of updating its rules for injection wells, including several changes related to siting. Those proposals place modest restrictions an injection well’s placement: not within 100 feet of water wells or surface water and not within 750 feet of a home or public building, among a handful of others. The agency is accepting public comment about the changes through the end of business, Feb. 5.

Notably, whatever changes Ohio EPA makes to the permitting process will apply to new wells, not the ones already in operation at Buckeye Brine and four other facilities around Ohio.

Malenke’s letter went to the state lawmakers who represent the area, too. Rep. Darrel Kick, R-Loudonville, and Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, both sympathized with the concerns but said there’s little they can do.

In an emailed statement, Kick noted Buckeye Brine’s permit only allows it to dispose of non-hazardous waste and emphasized that the water has been treated. “The dangerously toxic materials from East Palestine are not entering Buckeye Brine,” Kick said, adding that the company is “currently following all regulations necessary for this disposal.”

At the same time, he said it’s “imperative” to address the concerns Coshocton residents have raised.

“The question of whether injection wells should be situated in our community prompts apprehensions regarding environmental impact and public health,” Kick said, “Strict compliance with regulations and rigorous oversight are paramount. Transparency and prioritizing safety measures are essential to ensuring public health.”

Speaking after a recent Senate floor session, Brenner voiced the exact same concerns as Malenke and Mayor Mills.

“It’s probably safe what they’re doing,” he said. “Allegedly this water has been fully treated, but I’m not sure that if you were to ask anybody to drink that allegedly fully treated water that they would do it. And if they’re injecting it, even if it’s hundreds of feet or thousands of feet below somebody’s aquifer, there’s always a chance something could happen.”

He drew a comparison to Senate Bill 52, the legislation approved in 2021 allowing counties to restrict solar or wind developments on unincorporated land.

“I’ve supported dealing with the wind and solar — allowing counties (to have) jurisdiction. I would be open to something like that,” Brenner said.

But neither lawmaker has filed legislation to empower local officials or alter the state’s injection well program at the agency level.

In Brenner’s case, at least, that may have to do with the patchwork of agencies involved. The senator said he’s taken concerns about wastewater injection to the Ohio EPA, and he came away thinking the U.S. EPA has jurisdiction. Mayor Mills described getting the same runaround.

“It’s a pass the buck issue,” Mills argued, “and by the time someone figures out what the hell is going on, something bad could happen.”

In fact, the U.S. EPA set minimum standards for Class 1 injection wells through the Safe Drinking Water Act, but delegated direct oversight of the program in Ohio to the state EPA. The Ohio EPA’s injection well framework is laid out in state law and administrative rules.

And that kind of confusion is why Malenke organized the letter.

While locals are frustrated and powerless, it’s not like there aren’t avenues for changing the injection well permitting system. State lawmakers can require local consent, place limits on the number of wells or the amount of fluid injected, and it can establish fees on waste disposal to compensate the communities receiving it. The letter notes corollaries to all those policies that state lawmakers could use as a model.

But at the end of the day, she argued, it comes down to them.

“If a change is going to happen, it’s going to have to happen by the laws changing,” she said, “because what is happening right now is perfectly legal.”

Originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.
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