Kansas Energy Officials Review Legal Options After Errors Found In Oil Wastewater Permits

Nov 1, 2017

Kansas’ energy-regulating agency is trying to determine why permits were issued for half a dozen wastewater wells whose operators didn’t accurately inform nearby residents of their rights to protest the wells.

The deficiencies were discovered by a resident of Matfield Green in Chase County who objects to the wells, into which companies can pour hundreds or thousands of barrels of oil- and gas-related wastewater per day.

Cindy Hoedel wants the Kansas Corporation Commission to shut down the wells and make the companies in question redo the application process.

“Obviously if they’re not properly permitted they should be stopped,” Hoedel said. “That just seems very basic to me.”

A KCC spokeswoman said the agency’s three commissioners will need to decide what to do.

“Our legal staff is looking at that issue right now to see what the options are,” Linda Berry said.

Berry said it is unclear why the permits were granted without the companies meeting state regulations for notifying the public.

“We’re looking back at our process,” Berry said, “to make sure we can prevent anything like that from happening in the future and to remedy anything that has happened.”

The six wells are in Cowley, Greenwood, Linn, Miami and Sheridan counties. Another 11 well applications also are flawed, but the KCC had not issued permits to those operators yet and will ask the companies to restart the process of public notification.

‘How far back does this problem go?’

At issue are saltwater injection wells — sites where energy companies dump wastewater that they have churned up in the process of extracting oil and gas from the ground. In Kansas, the fluid is primarily brine, but it can contain chemicals.

Saltwater injection wells, like this in southeast Kansas, are gaining more attention from Kansans concerned about their potential effects.
Credit Courtesy Kansas Geological Survey

Before operating such a well, a company has to publish a public notice in a designated local newspaper letting residents know about the planned well and that they have 30 days to protest to the KCC.

Hoedel, one of a number of Flint Hills residents who have been protesting applications for wastewater wells over the past year, found that some companies had published notices incorrectly describing the protest period as 15 days. Of about 50 notices that she reviewed, 17 — for the 11 pending applications and the 6 already approved ones — listed 15 instead of 30 days.

The retired Kansas City Star reporter maintains there could be more wells with permits that failed to meet state regulations for public notice, because she only reviewed notices that she could find online, all of which were published from June through October of this year.

“My next concern, obviously, is how far back does this problem go?” Hoedel asked. “Were people not giving the public the proper amount of notice to protest six months ago? Eight months ago? Two years ago? Three years ago?”

Asked whether the KCC will be reviewing any older well applications, Berry said she didn’t have a definite answer yet.

“I know that it is something we’re looking at,” she said. “We’re just looking at the situation and determining what our next steps should be.”

Berry said the KCC considers public notice regulations important.

“We want to make sure that’s done appropriately,” she said.

Errors come to light

Hoedel began reviewing notices after reading that the KCC was instructing Florida-based Midstates Energy to publish new notices for two wells in Douglas County because the company had incorrectly described the protest period as 15 days.

The KCC noticed the error when the governments of Douglas County and Lawrence wrote to the agency complaining that 15 days was not enough time for local officials to consider the impact of the wells and determine whether to file protests.

“We’re looking back at our process.” — Linda Berry, Kansas Corporation Commission spokeswoman

It’s unclear why some companies have been printing incorrect notices.

Berry said there have not been any recent changes in state regulations that might be causing confusion. The KCC does not provide boilerplate language to companies for use in public notices, she said, but the requirements for such notices are spelled out in the regulations.

Some types of oil- and gas-related activities do involve a 15-day protest window, Berry said, but the 30-day period applies to wastewater wells.

Companies required to redo their public notifications could face formal protests. Residents opposed to saltwater injection in the Flint Hills protested a well application there earlier this year, hiring a lawyer and taking the matter to a KCC hearing.

They lost the months-long process in September, when the KCC ruled there was no evidence the Morris County well would pose any immediate public danger.

But the protesters broadened their campaign, scouring newspapers for notices of other well applications, with the goal of lodging protests against any in the Flint Hills. They enlisted help through social media, and some residents in Douglas County and the Kansas City metro mounted similar efforts.

RELATED: Flint Hills residents expand effort to block saltwater injection wells

The formal challenge against the Morris County well earlier this year lasted several months.

People who protested the Morris County well say their concerns include the link between earthquakes and saltwater disposal in south-central Kansas and Oklahoma, though the Flint Hills has not experienced quakes. They also fear unscrupulous practices and risks for water contamination.

The KCC says wastewater wells are surrounded by three layers of casing to prevent pollution, and that the fluid is injected into rock formations that are isolated from usable ground water.

The U.S. Geological Survey says wastewater wells are responsible for earthquakes in Oklahoma and south-central Kansas but that most of the wells across the country don’t cause quakes.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.