Oil a slippery issue

The same oil wells that once brought prosperity to Wood County are now causing problems for residents and
Last month, the county commissioners heard that an estimated 36,000 abandoned oil wells exist in Wood
County – with many of them plugged improperly, or never plugged at all. 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 water wells throughout the county.
(Photo: File photo. Crews clean up oil spill at a private residents along Poe road west just outside of
Bowling Green. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune))
So this week, the commissioners met with officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio
EPA, Wood County Health Department and local oil well experts to discuss how to plug the wells and
prevent construction on top of them.
"As long as people keep spreading out in rural areas, we’re going to see more problems out
there," said Brad Espen, director of the environmental division at the Wood County Health
Plugging old oil wells isn’t cheap, and in many cases isn’t quick. While the state has an orphaned oil
well program that caps wells, many developers don’t notify the state since it can take years to get a
well plugged.
"We’ve got wells that have been in the program for 15 years," said Ken Fry, of ODNR.
To hire a private business to plug the well, it can cost between $11,500 and $20,000.
So instead of waiting, or paying for the plugging, countless developers have poured concrete over the
wells and build homes on top, and farmers have cut off the well casings then plowed over them.
"That’s a very dangerous situation," said Bob Harpster, of Bradner Oil Services.
Meanwhile, unsuspecting homeowners sit on top of open oil wells, and water aquifers are at risk of being
contaminated by the seeping oil.
"The worst thing you can do is hide it," Fry said.
"A lot of these were drilled over 100 years ago," Fry said, and even if they were plugged
properly back then, it doesn’t meet today’s standards.
Few records exist of where the abandoned wells are located. ODNR has 6,935 wells on its data base for
Wood County. However, of the 100 or so orphaned wells reported in the recent past, "not one was on
the data base," said Ken Piispanen, mineral resources inspector for ODNR.
Of 222 oil wells reported to the abandoned oil well program in Wood County, 150 have been plugged and 70
are still waiting.
"We are trying to get more funding," Piispanen said. Currently the state spends between
$300,000 and $400,000 a year to plug wells, but ODNR has asked for $1 million a year.
Making matters worse is people fearing the liability of having an abandoned oil well on their property,
according to Dave Housholder, a farmer and Portage Township Trustee.
"The ag community has very quietly thrown a rock down and covered it up," he said.
And the costs of proper plugging are prohibitive.
"There’s no way we can economically plug all these wells," Housholder said. "But if we can
locate them, we can make sure homes aren’t built on them."
"If it’s just plowed over, they are just putting off a problem for future generations,"
Commissioner Tim Brown said.
And it’s not just farmers who are covering up the wells. Mike Coyer, of Black Swamp Oil Services, told of
being called to check out an old well in Lucas County where a restaurant was being built. He immediately
went up to check the site, and found the concrete had already been poured over it.
"They covered it up right away," Coyer said.
So the commissioners agreed to push for legislation putting some teeth in laws requiring developers to
report abandoned oil wells to the state, and to educate builders and landowners about the hazards of
constructing homes on top of oil wells. The county’s building inspection office will work with ODNR to
put information about oil wells in the county’s brochure on building in rural areas.
"We’ve got to get this education process started," Commissioner Jim Carter said.
Harpster also suggested that some wells should not be plugged if they can still produce oil.
"We also need to think about energy for the future," he said. "There is money to be made
at them."
"We’re not going to have gushes of oil coming out of the ground," but they can be profitable,
Ben Harpster said.