Unchartered Waters: State oversight of fracking wastewater injection wells in Michigan

Six weeks into my research internship and it is officially Spring at the Clean Water Action office in Lansing, Michigan. Grand River was given a makeover over the weekend when the East Lansing and Lansing communities came together for the annual Grand River cleanup.  Everything from jackets to bicycles, were collected from the river. As always, copious amounts of plastic were recovered.

Volunteers following the Grand River cleanup. The Grand River runs through East Lansing and Lansing, Michigan, United States. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Courval.
Volunteers following the Grand River cleanup. The Grand River runs through East Lansing and Lansing, Michigan, United States. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Courval.

As part of our work protecting the Great Lakes and as Michigan’s largest non-profit environmental organization, Clean Water Action offers interns opportunities to conduct research on a range of different issues – from promoting clean energy projects, to raising awareness about the pollution caused by coal ash. Did you know that State Representative Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) has proposed a bill that includes the burning of tires in the definition of ‘clean energy?’ You can read more here.

Clean Water Action is also researching the environmental impacts of oil and gas projects in Michigan and nationally. The impacts of the fracking process on drinking water supplies is subject to increasing community awareness and growing opposition.

While there was the scope for comparative analysis between fracking in my home State of New South Wales and Michigan, I chose a Michigan-specific case study. The research explores the economic, social, and environmental implications of a change in primacy over Class II underground injection wells from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). These Class II injection wells are used to store wastewater generated by the hydraulic fracturing process. A change in ‘primacy’ means a change in primary enforcement responsibility.

Why does this change matter to Michiganders (and to those reading this in Australia)?

Well, because it has the potential to affect our drinking water supplies. Should the concrete casing of the injection well fail, or should the wastewater spill into the environment during transportation, there is the potential for drinking water contamination. Scientists from University of Michigan have raised concerns that produced brine (wastewater), which includes formation and flowback water, is often highly saline, and may contain elevated concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORMs), such as arsenic, radium and uranium. This means that effective monitoring and enforcement by the relevant agency is crucial. Enforcement agencies need both human resources and funding to carry out monitoring.

The coming week in the Clean Water Action office in Lansing, is set to be an exciting one with research moving from the ‘literature review’ stage to ‘informal stakeholder discussions.’

We hope to hear from members of the MDEQ, including Adam Wygant from the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, (OOGM) who prepared Michigan’s request for primacy; scientific experts, including Dr. Brian Ellis, from University of Michigan who is focused on testing the impact of fracking on Michigan’s unique shale formations; as well as community action groups, For the Love of Water, Tip of the Mitt Water Watershed Council and Food and Water Watch.

Hopefully, these discussions will shed light on the underlying goals and values of the various stakeholders. It will be interesting to see if these goals and values align with the MDEQ’s proposed policy around the monitoring and enforcement of the Class II injection wells. The MDEQ’s draft primacy application can be viewed here.

On paper, the MDEQ’s policies aim to protect Michigan’s drinking water supplies, but how this will translate into real-world groundwater protection remains to be seen. In its pursuit of primacy the OOGM is expanding its definition of ‘protected aquifers’ to reflect the definition in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The permit granting process has been split into ‘phases’ in order to expedite the process. Phase I involves the Permit Application Review, Phase II involves the Public Notification and Permit Decision, and Phase III involves Testing Authorization and Operation.

In terms of compliance and enforcement, the MDEQ has certain principles: actions must be timely, must be appropriate to violations alleged, must be consistent for like violations, must use progressive action for repeat violations, and must be responsive to division program priorities and needs.

What remains to be seen is whether the MDEQ will be able to hold well operators responsible for violations.

And equally so, will Michiganders be able to hold the MDEQ accountable?

Given the rocky history of fracking in the United States, with poor wastewater disposal regulations, loopholes for the fracking industry, and misinformation around the drinking water contamination risks, accountability is essential.

So that is all for this week. And feel free to drop in anytime, we are always willing to have a chat with you about your drinking water concerns.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Baumber says:

    Nice update Alexandra. I hope you put the rubbish you found in the river to good use producing “clean” energy 😉

  2. Alex Auhl says:

    Thanks Alex. Thankfully, the rubbish was recycled. I visited the recycling plant yesterday, as there is no curbside pick up here in Lansing. The recycling plant is also right next to the city’s coal burner (the Eckert plant), which will be gradually phased out in the next 7-10 years.

    While the Board of Water & Light (the Eckert plant’s owners) hope to replace the plant’s generating capacity with renewables, Commissioner Price from BWL also stated: “The price of [renewables] has come down. Who knows? Maybe in five years there will be some magical invention.” I am not sure what ‘magical invention’ Commissioner Price is waiting for, given the success of solar, wind, hydro, geothermal etc.


  3. husky6actual says:

    Hi Alex A, thanks for the interesting update in Michigan … and long may the precautionary principle live!

    The potential risks and adverse impacts of fracking particularly associated with permanently damaging aquifers compromises the basic rights associated with inter-generational equity and sustainable development.

    Best of luck with keeping the MDEQ on their toes and transparent.


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