Weathersfield well operator fights ODNR after state shut well down

WEATHERSFIELD — The operator of an injection well here used for fracking wastewater is challenging the authority of Ohio’s oil-and-gas chief to regulate its operations, calling his actions illegal and contrary to science.

American Water Management Services on Tuesday argued in a case before Franklin County Judge Kimberly Cocroft that the official acted unreasonably against its Weathersfield Township well. The facility was shuttered after at least 20 small seismic events occurred nearby in 2014.

The injection well operator is fighting for permission to reopen a brine deep injection well that has been idled in the township for about two years.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Commission ordered the well along state Route 169 closed after a 2.1 magnitude earthquake on Aug. 31, 2014. State regulators believe the tremors tapped the same fault as a 4.0 magnitude earthquake in Youngstown in 2011 that prompted a temporary injection moratorium in the area.

In September 2014, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates class II injection wells, ordered AWMS, a subsidiary of Avalon Holdings Inc. of Howland, to shut down the well. A shallow well that also was shut down temporarily at the site was permitted to resume operations.

American Water Management contends the law doesn’t give the chief the right to suspend its permit based on speculation about the possibility of future earthquakes — “not actual and reliable scientific evidence.”

The commission had affirmed the order by Oil and Gas Resources Management Chief Rick Simmers that kept the well from operating. The commission found that Simmers’ move to close the class II well was lawful and refused to lift his order to shut it down.

The commission, in its ruling, pointed out Ohio law authorizes the division chief to suspend permits under certain circumstances, and specifically addresses conditions or activities that he determines present an imminent danger to the health or safety of the public or that result, or are likely to result, in immediate substantial damage to the natural resources.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is arguing that the chief’s role includes protecting the public from the threat of human-induced earthquakes and other public safety hazards.

“Should the chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management have to wait for a damaging earthquake to hit a community before issuing a chief’s order suspending operations? Of course not,” the state asserts in its brief. That “would lead to an absurd result,” attorneys argue.

In its brief, the state says the chief was concerned about earthquakes “continuing to escalate in magnitudes — threatening public health, safety and the environment.” The company’s plan for restoring operations would have made the community “an experimental testing area,” it says.

The company counters in its brief that the chief’s suspension order wasn’t based on any violation of its permit, permit conditions or any Ohio law.

It argues that allowing such an action to stand “gives the chief expansive, unlimited and unbridled implied authority to take any action he desires if he acts in the name of public health and safety” — even if it violates Ohio laws and rules.

The company is appealing a decision of the state Oil and Gas Commission that upheld the chief’s order. Cocroft declined to allow the well to reopen while the lawsuit is argued.