Analysis of state contracts to plug orphaned wells reveals that cleanup costs might creep into the billions

Plugging the myriad orphaned oil and gas wells around Ohio costs, on average, more than $110,000 per well, according to a new analysis of Department of Natural Resources data. The research was pulled from contracts the state awarded in 2019 by the ARO Working Group, a network that studies the decommissioning of oil assets and is affiliated with environmental group Earthworks. Compared with Ohio’s actual cleanup costs, operators are only required to put up a fund, called a bond, of $5,000 per well or $15,000 for all of their wells. This money, a fraction of the true price tag, is returned to operators once they plug their wells, which is meant as an incentive to do so. “My big concern is that the business models here in Ohio are premised on cheap water, cheap waste and cheap landscape change,” said Ted Auch, the Great Lakes program coordinator at environmental group FracTracker Alliance.

‘That’s vinegar’: The Ohio River’s history of contamination and progress made

By April Johnston

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species. 

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective. On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside. One fish. It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] for more than two decades.