More than a century after bubbling black oil pumped wealth into the wallets of Wood County residents, it is now suspected of leaking contaminants into local wells.
An estimated 36,000 abandoned oil wells still percolate under the surface of Wood County, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Those wells are causing two main concerns - buildings are being constructed right on top of them creating risks to their inhabitants, and oil is creeping upward into the aquifers and thus getting into several water wells throughout the county.
Evidence of the oil arrived at the county commissioners office Tuesday when a glass jar of seemingly clear water was placed on the conference table. Commissioner Alvie Perkins shook the jar and oil instantly turned it into a blackened snowglobe.
The commissioners listened as people from different professions - chemistry, water well drilling, and oil well capping - explained the serious risks of the abandoned oil wells.
"This is probably going to scare a lot of people," Commissioner Tim Brown said.
And it should, according to Dr. Bob Midden of the chemistry department at Bowling Green State University.
"I'm afraid it is serious," he said. "I've been concerned about this for quite awhile."
Once an oil boom region, nearly three-quarters of Wood County is considered "oil-bearing," with one oil well for every four acres.
Old black and white photographs from the county show towering derricks side-by-side pumping the precious oil from the ground. In 1897, the village of Wayne reportedly had more than 120 derricks. Stories tell of people being able to walk through communities and "never touching the ground," as they stepped from derrick to derrick, Midden said.
Of those once prolific wells, only 1 to 2 percent are properly plugged, based on state estimates.
Over the decades, countless farmers have cut off the well casings so they don't get in the way of equipment and crops. And houses have been built right on top of wells by developers who either didn't know or didn't care about the abandoned wells, according to Mike Coyer, of Black Swamp Oil Field Services.
"It's been kept hidden," he said.
Coyer came armed Tuesday with Ohio Oil Co. maps from 1914, showing 145 oil wells in one section of Liberty Township alone. Midden said many other maps have been lost and even destroyed intentionally.
Coyer rattled off locations in the county where old oil wells sit - Merry Street, Conneaut Avenue, Summit and Clough, and BGSU's McFall Center all in Bowling Green; North Baltimore Road where crude oil was recently found in a home's sump pump; Perrysburg where a sewer project collided with an old oil well; and farmland scattered through much of the county.
He referred to the leak earlier this year along West Poe Road, where oil bubbled up from an abandoned well, contaminating farmland. And he told of a house that exploded after being built over an oil well in Lucas County.
"It's potentially deadly," he said.
Local well driller, Jim Williams, said he recently hit oil when digging for water.
"It was just pouring. It coated the ground," Williams told the commissioners. And that is no longer uncommon. "It's really getting worse and worse."
But Coyer said many of his warnings to developers have gone unheeded. He told the commissioners that when Stone Ridge was being built in Bowling Green, he notified the developer, Cavalear, of 45 old oil wells on the acreage. Only four were plugged - the rest were covered up, he said.
"They have no idea" some homes are sitting on oil wells, Coyer said of the homeowners there.
Dick Newlove, who was among multiple local developers who took over the Stone Ridge project, said he is not aware of any unplugged oil wells in the development.
"I've had wells plugged all over out there," in the areas west of Bowling Green, Newlove said Tuesday. He assured that his policy is to plug oil wells once they are found. "This is not some big secret."
The state does have an Idle Orphan Well Program, which offers to plug old wells. However, that program is low on funding and can be slow in reacting. Newlove said that the program recently plugged a well for him, but took 18 months after the oil well was hit to do the job.
Drillers are required to report strikes of oil wells to the state. However, that is rarely done, Coyer said.
"They don't want to hold up a project," nor encounter the expense of nearly $8,500 to plug an oil well, he said.
Coyer said there are two solutions for the abandoned oil wells. The county could ask voters to approve a special fund to plug wells. "The county can actually levy a tax," he said.
Or by setting up a non-profit entity, the county could access private foundation funds to plug wells.
Either way, the work will be slow - with 36,000 wells to plug.
But Newlove cautioned that plugging wells will be tricky since most are on private property.
"I just think someone better proceed with caution," he said.
Plus, Newlove doesn't have a great deal of confidence in old oil maps.
"I don't even know how accurate they are," he said. "These weren't done with satellite precision."
The commissioners agreed to meet again on the subject, and include officials from the health department, building inspection and emergency management.
PHOTO: Crews clean up oil spill at a private residents along Poe road west just outside of Bowling Green. 2/12/09 (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)