Setting the Record Straight on Rolling Stone’s Fact-Challenged Piece on Injection Wells and CELDF

Rolling Stone put out a hit piece this week that not only attempts to perpetuate the myth that injection wells are inherently dangerous, but also tries to legitimize the agenda and tactics used by radical Pennsylvania-based activist group Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).

As EID has highlighted many times before, CELDF has been behind numerous failed attempts to ban fracking and other oil and gas activity at the local level by claiming the individual property rights should be trumped by the rights of “nature and ecosystems.”

The Rolling Stone piece centers on CELDF’s latest target, Grant Township, Pa., where CELDF is exploiting another community in its effort to advance its “rights of nature” assault on property rights and business development with a “home rule” charter designed to ban a Class II injection well.

The fact that CELDF leader Thomas Linzey is quoted in the Rolling Stone article saying, “Our constitutional structure is an archaic suicide pact,” tells you all you need to know about the organization’s radical goals. And given Rolling Stone’s recent credibility issues, it’s not surprising that the piece is riddled with inaccuracies. Here are the most egregious examples followed by the facts.

Rolling Stone is wrong on wastewater disposal.

RS CLAIM: Penn State ecologist and blogger William Hamilton is quoted saying, “To me, pumping it into the ground seems like a very foolish way to dispose of a toxic material. There are going to be gigantic, unknown and long-term consequences to this.”

FACT: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disagrees, describing deep injection as a “safe and inexpensive option” for the disposal of hazardous byproducts, while noting that the process has been used since the 1930s.

The EPA also notes the “deep underground injection of brines in formations isolated from underground sources of drinking water prevents soil and water contamination.” Even Duke professor Avner Vengosh, who has produced a number of anti-fracking studies over the years, had to admit after conducting a recent study on oil and gas wastewater injection that the risk of contamination from this process is very “low.”

RS CLAIM: “Essentially, Wanchisn learned, the ground beneath her would be used as a vast toxic-waste storage locker. PGE planned to inject 42,000 gallons of fracking wastewater a day into a layer of rock 7,500 feet beneath the ground, where it was to remain for eternity. The pumping would continue 24 hours a day, every day, for half a generation or more – Wanchisn’s teenage grandchildren could be married with children, and PGE would still be injecting fracking waste.”

FACT: A vast majority of the wastewater disposed of in Class II injection wells is not fracking fluid or fracking “flowback water.” Instead, more than 90 percent of the wastewater being disposed in such wells is brine — or ancient ocean saltwater — that is co-produced during day-to-day oil and gas production, both conventional and unconventional.

Duke University researchers published a study last year that reinforces this fact, as the study found the volume and quality of water that returns to the surface during oil and natural gas development (which the study refers to as “FP water”) is almost entirely composed of naturally occurring formation brine (about 92 to 96 percent), with between four and eight percent of wastewater consisting of fracking fluid used in development.

Even then, the study finds, fracking fluid is only found within the first few months of development. And because much of the FP water is formation brine, the authors of that study also mentioned it can be safely processed and reused depending on its salinity and chemical composition.

To put this another way, a vast majority of the wastewater that is disposed of in Class II injection wells is simply being returned back deep into the ground where it came from.

RS CLAIM: “A landmark study published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, co-authored by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, determined that a West Virginia injection-well site was ‘impacting the stream that runs through the area.’”

FACT: Importantly, the study didn’t find any traces of fracking chemicals. Instead, the study finds small traces of brine, which again, is ancient ocean saltwater co-produced during day-to-day conventional and unconventional oil and gas production, meaning is not exclusive to wells that have been hydraulically fractured. More importantly, the researchers note that amount of brine found in the stream is minimal at most. As the study notes,

“However, the contribution of wastewaters to the stream chemistry is small, but still detectable, with less than 0.001 part brine to 0.999 parts freshwater needed to account for the observed stream Br- and Cl- contents.” (p. 16)

Further, although there are currently only 10 Class II wells in Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are roughly 150,000 Class II UIC wells in the United States, with about 40,000 of these used for commercial disposal of wastewater from oil and natural gas production and the remaining used for secondary recovery of oil and natural gas from conventional wells. Leaking Class II wells are not a widespread problem, as the Rolling Stone piece implies.

To the contrary, properly constructed disposal wells do not pose a credible risk of water contamination, and as the Environmental Protection Agency notes:

“By injecting the brine deep underground, Class II wells prevent surface contamination of soil and water.”

Further, the U.S. Government Accountability Office assessed wastewater disposal regulation across the country and concluded in June 2014 that the states it reviewed “have safeguards, such as construction requirements for injection wells, to protect against contamination of underground sources of drinking water.” Further, regulatory oversight is a dynamic process, and technological improvements often result in added efficiency.

Rolling Stone is wrong on CELDF.

RS CLAIM: “With the help of outside advocates (CELDF), the small community landed upon a radical strategy: It adopted an ordinance that granted residents the right to local self-government, essentially seizing the power to bypass the EPA. According to the new laws of their renegade township, not only could humans defend themselves against PGE, but so too could the streams, the salamanders, the hemlock trees, the very soil underground. As outrageous as it might seem, the move thrust Grant Township onto the front line of a new environmental movement: It’s the battle to grant legal rights to nature. And amazingly, it appears to be working.”

FACT: Rolling Stone conveniently glosses over the fact that CELDF has had minimal success. In fact, it’s never won a “Community Bill of Rights” dispute that’s been challenged in court.

Even left-leaning StateImpact Pennsylvania notes this in its article regarding the Grant Township saga and a similar situation in Highland Township, “Both local governments have spent years fighting the disposal wells. They adopted the home rule charters with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)– a group which embraces novel, and largely unsuccessful, legal tactics for communities around the country to fight unwanted development projects.”

There is good reason CELDF has had little success: What it’s selling is totally unenforceable and is a burden on taxpayers. And this is something CELDF founder Thomas Linzey has no qualms with, considering he has gone as far as to suggest that bankrupting towns may be “exactly what is needed” for its campaign to succeed.

CELDF’s efforts to pass a “Community Bill of Rights” that would ban fracking in Youngstown, Ohio, has failed six times. Despite this repeated rejection of CELDF’s extreme agenda, the organization has pledged to continue putting the measure up to vote “43 times” if necessary, despite the fact it has already cost taxpayers $95,000.

In response to the group’s fifth attempt in 2015, Mahoning County Democrat Party Chairman, David Betras stated,

“The members of the executive committee were unanimous in opposition to amending the charter banning fracking. The group knows full well this is a total waste of the taxpayers’ precious funds. ” (emphasis added)

Lafayette, Col., was recently stuck with a $60,000 bill for defending a “Community Bill of Rights” initiative in court. At a meeting in March, Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg took issue with how the ordinance for her community “was not written on behalf of our residents and in our own tone,” alluding to how the language was pulled from a similar ordinance from — lo and behold — Grant Township, Pa.:

“I’ve been very clear that the clarity of [the language of the ordinance] is very problematic, and some of you have pointed that out. Change the language if you want it to be more clear. Change the language if you want it to be a better representation of Lafayette. This was written for a couple of counties in Pennsylvania. It was not written on behalf of our residents and in our own tone.”

In the case of Mora County, N.M. where CELDF’s ordinance was struck down in federal court resulting in taxpayers being strapped with hefty legal fees, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported how CELDF knew going into the battle that their proposed ordinance – the same one peddled to Grant Township, Youngstown, Lafayette and others – was unconstitutional, and the organization wanted it to be challenged. This is evident in comments to the New Mexican by Sofia Martinez, president of Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County in speaking about CELDF’s local representative Kathleen Dudley, as well as those from local resident Marino Rivera:

“While she credits Dudley with having excellent organizing skills, Martinez thinks the group now is getting used by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, to Mora County’s detriment. ‘CELDF is clear they want this to be challenged all the way to the high court. That is fine. Just don’t use us to do it,’” Martinez said.

Rivera said those supporting the ordinance knew Mora County would get sued, but he felt it was worth the fight. ‘The ban is unconstitutional. I think we all knew that going in. CELDF was very upfront about that,’ he said.”

Conclusion

At the end of the day, this hit piece from Rolling Stone is the latest example of why the magazine should stick to covering music. The article is nothing more than a glamorization of an extreme organization that is taking advantage of people in order to push a radical agenda. CELDF knows its ordinances are unenforceable and don’t stand up in court. And CELDF knows good and well that the ultimate outcome of each fight it creates is years of time and taxpayer money wasted in the communities it infiltrates. Grant Township is no exception, as it has not only been sued by the company seeking to operate there, but also the state’s regulatory agency due to the fact it is attempting supersede state authority in banning a practice that has been proven safe.

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