Energy & Environment

A proposal to repurpose a docking facility near Marietta, Ohio, to allow for the barging of oil and gas drilling waste on the Ohio River is drawing concern from environmental groups and local residents.

Ohio-based DeepRock Disposal Solutions LLC is seeking approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Huntington District to operate a barge offloading facility to transfer the waste to existing storage tanks. The proposal indicates the loading facility can accommodate a 300-foot-long barge that is 54 feet wide. 

It is the third barging proposal this year being considered by federal regulators. A proposal near Martins Ferry, Ohio, and one near Portland, Ohio, both to build new barging loading facilities have already been approved. 

Opponents of the projects fear the barges will eventually carry millions of gallons of briny fracking waste laced with radioactive elements as well as other, unknown chemicals. The chemical makeup of fracking fluid is considered proprietary. 

Robin Blakeman, project coordinator with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said her main concern is the possibility of spills or leaks occurring during loading or unloading of the waste or on the river. She said a spill would threaten both the river’s ecosystems and the drinking water for about 5 million people who draw their tap water from the Ohio River. 

“The proposed facility would involve the transport and handling of enormous amounts of oil and gas waste, which has the possibility of radioactive content and definitely has hazardous components,” she said. “The toxic contents of this oil and gas waste could be huge.”

DeepRock Disposal declined a request for an interview about the nature of the project. 

It’s unclear if oil and gas waste is currently being barged on the river. A spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates shipping on the river, said the Guard could only provide that information through a records request. The Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh said no produced water is being transported by vessel in their area of responsibility, which includes a small portion of the Ohio River.

Public Meeting Malaise

The Army Corps held a virtual public hearing to discuss the DeepRock proposal at 5 p.m. on Friday, August 7. Participants said the hearing was hard to access. To both hear and see the presentation, commenters needed to both call in and connect online. Statements were limited to two minutes. All 14 participants opposed the project. 

“I will just say that your meeting interface here is terrible,” said Barbara Stewart, who identified herself as a business owner, mother and grandmother from Marietta. “It seems like maybe you guys could have done a Zoom meeting or something that would be more accessible to people because I’m sure there are a lot of people who would like to make a statement here and are not able to under to weave through this entire web of stuff that you have to weave through in order to make a statement.”

In his public testimony, Josh Eisenfeld with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, objected to the lack of information provided by the Army Corps. 

“At this point, it is impossible for the Army Corps of Engineers to tell whether it’s acting contrary to public interest because the public does not have enough information to tell the Army Corps whether it believes it’s in their interest or not,” he said. “First of all, what is happening tonight has been stated over and over again, was not clear until the meeting commenced, and still is really not clear.”

Elizabeth Geltman, a professor of public health at the City University of New York School of Public Health, has studied previous attempts to secure permits to barge oil and gas waste on the Ohio River and said there are parallels to the current proposal. 

In 2011, GreenHunter Water LLC sought permission from the Coast Guard to barge fracking waste on the Ohio River. In 2013, the company applied for a permit from the Army Corps to build a barge loading facility. The public flooded both agencies with thousands of comments, largely in opposition to the proposals. In 2016, the Coast Guard announced it would consider future proposals on a case-by-case basis. 

Geltman published a paper in 2017 that evaluated the public’s ability to participate in this previous round of rulemaking and found gaps in the ways the agencies carried out these processes. The Army Corps, she argues, has jurisdiction over a large portion of river infrastructure, but is not as attuned to addressing the environmental concerns that surface when barging facilities propose to handle potentially hazardous waste. 

“They have very, very narrow jurisdiction in terms of what they can and can’t do,” Geltman said. “And so one of the problems that we have is we’re building an overlay on top of historical things that don’t make a lot of sense.”

Unlike some federal agencies, the Army Corps isn’t required to automatically schedule hearings for proposed permits or place notices in the Federal Register. Geltman said that makes it harder for the public to participate and in the case of barging oil and gas waste on the river is problematic.  

According to the DeepRock permit proposal, the company does not believe a plan to deal with a possible spill or other disaster is necessary. The permit also does not include a plan to close the facility at the end of its lifespan. Because the dock already exists and no dredging or construction will occur, the Army Corps said a survey of endangered mussel species in the river is not required. 

The comment period for the DeepRock proposal closes Monday, August 17 at 4 p.m. Comments and requests for additional information should be submitted electronically to Kayla Adkins by email at kayla.n.adkins@usace.army.mil.

Comments may also be submitted by mail to: 

United States Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District

ATTN:  CELRH-RD-N Public Notice:  LRH-2020-293-OHR

502 Eighth Street

Huntington, West Virginia 25701-2070

 

Based at WVPB in Morgantown, WV, Brittany Patterson covers all things energy and environment.