Natural gas exploration is changing the landscape of Arkansas — literally.
Drilling operations in the Fayetteville Shale (including future operations planned on state Game and Fish lands leased to Chesapeake Energy) are raising environmental concerns. Drilling requires massive amounts of water, and produces a considerable amount of waste. Water law in the state seems unable to protect property owners, and state agencies, like the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) seem unable to inspect and regulate the waste sites.
Most wells are drilled in two steps: By drilling a well and then using hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, to crack open the shale so gas can be extracted. The mud produced during the first phase can be disposed of by land application. But the frac fluid — water, lubricants, sand and chemicals — can harm the environment and must be disposed of into sealed, underground wells.
In New Mexico, toxic chemicals from drilling liquid leaked into the water table at almost 800 sites. Spills affecting ground water have also been reported in Colorado.
Greenwood, in North Arkansas, just south of Fort Smith, is home to two surface disposal sites operated by Green Grow Disposal and Comer Mining Corp. Both of these sites have repeatedly violated regulations, ADEQ reports indicate.
In September 2006, ADEQ found Green Grow in violation because the company had not yet filed its 2005 annual report. Annual reports include data on drilling fluids and soil samples taken near the reserve pits in which the fluids are held prior to land application. Since that 2006 inspection, Green Grow has racked up 11 violations in three inspections, including improper land application of fluids, inadequately high walls around the pits and overflowing pits.
Comer Mining's record is similarly poor. Since March 16, 2007, the company has amassed eight violations resulting from three inspections. Violations involve the absence of records confirming dates, locations and volumes of fluids accepted, failure to submit soil samples, improper land application and inadequate walls around the pits.
The owners of both facilities, Foy Brown of Green Grow and Henry Comer of Comer Mining, maintain they try to follow regulations and look out for the environment. The record indicates otherwise.
Jeff Tyler, an ADEQ inspector responsible for the area, says that Brown and Comer have been cooperative. Tyler says there have been rumors that Comer has dumped fluids into a creek near the pit, but he has been unable to confirm those reports. While ADEQ has documented improper dumping of frac fluid at other sites, Tyler said he had not seen evidence of that on either Greenwood site.
“There's a lot of public attention to this and ADEQ is trying to do the best we can to respond to all the complaints and protect the waters of the state,” Tyler says.
ADEQ has the power to revoke permits issued to commercial or surface disposal sites that violate state regulations, but they have yet to do so. The agency's action to date has been limited to fines and enforcement actions.
On Sept. 10, a consent administrative order was issued to Green Grow Disposal by ADEQ, including a fine of $9,100. After a 30-day comment period, Green Grow will have 30 days to pay the fine.
ADEQ, the agency charged with ensuring the safety of state waters, does not have enough inspectors to check procedures at every drilling/disposal site.
“There are so many of these pits going in and so many drilling operations going in that we will not be able to do inspections of every one of those,” Teresa Marks, ADEQ director, said. “It would just be impossible with our resources. But we have what we think are the necessary environmental controls in place.”