Deep Injection Wells

May 21, 2009

<p class="MsoNormal"><span>Deep injection wells are typically used to dispose the briny fluids left over when drilling for oil and gas. But there are about fifteen wells in the state that can take more hazardous, industrial waste. One near Johannesburg is disposing of <a href="" target="_blank">caustic waste</a> from the cleanup at Bay Harbor, near Petoskey. Another is planned near Alba to take more Bay Harbor waste. And now one is proposed for Williamsburg to take sugary juice leftover from cherry processing.</span><span> </span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>All of this waste would wind up in the same deep geologic formation called the Dundee, roughly 2,000 feet underground. The Department of Environmental Quality's Rick Henderson says it's like filling up a bathtub. Henderson is in charge of permits for these injection wells in northern Michigan. He says geologists can keep track of the pressure in the formation to see if the tub might spill over.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span> </span><span>"We have some of these disposal wells that have operated for decades and decades and decades and we don’t really see any pressure rises.”</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>Opponents aren’t convinced these geologic formations are as foolproof as regulators think. Researchers have found <a href="" target="_blank">sinkholes in the bottom of Lake Huron </a>near Alpena and believe the salty water bubbling up from these is groundwater coming from the Dundee formation. Fisheries biologists have observed similar sinkholes on the bottom of Lake Michigan but these have not been documented or studied.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>The DEQ's Ray Vugrinovich says if those sinkholes also are venting briny water then it might give regulators a reason to reconsider the permits.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>For Chris Groebbel, that raises doubts about the long term safety of these deep injection wells. He’s an environmental consultant who’s written reports critical of the locations of the wells in the Traverse area. Groebell says the underground geology is not well understood.  And he’s concerned a laundry list of wastes will eventually be injected underground. Once a well is approved, the public is not notified if the owner asks for the permit to dispose of something else.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>"The biggest fear would be something like the CKD leachate from Bay Harbor would come," he says. "Well, that’s just one example."</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>Opponents would like to see the agencies slow down and look at the big picture before they grant more deep injection permits. But Ray Vugrinovich says the agencies would need detailed engineering or scientific reasons why the well wouldn’t be safe before they would deny a permit.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal"><span>"And as I recall the testimony tonight, we didn’t hear that," he said after a recent public hearing.</span></p>