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The Devil’s Details about Radioisotopes and Other Toxic Contaminants in Marcellus Shale Flowback Fluids

and Their Appearance in Surface Water Sources and Threats to Recreationalists, Private Well Water Users, and Municipal Water Supplies

By Conrad Dan Volz, DrPH, MPH – Director, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

In yesterday’s FracTracker post, CHEC’s data manager Matt Kelso told the tale of two stories regarding radionuclides in Marcellus Shale flowback water and in river water as sampled by the PA DEP. As he said “the devil is in the details” and here are the “devil’s details” that put both stories into their proper public health context.
There are without doubt higher levels of radioisotopes in Marcellus Shaleflowback fluids than in the fracking fluids, which are injected under highpressure to fracture the shale layer. And in general problems related tonaturally occurring radioisotope buildup in the oil and gas industry arewell documented. The following is a passage from my expert testimony in theMatter of Delaware River Basin Commission Consolidated AdministrativeAdjudicatory Hearing on Natural Gas Exploratory Wells; Filed November23, 2010:

Elevated concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive materials(NORM), including 238U, 232Th and their progeny, are found inunderground geologic deposits and are often encountered during drillingfor oil and gas deposits (Rajaretnam G, and Spitz HB., 2000). Drill cuttingsfrom the Marcellus may be enriched in radium radionuclides and off-gas the radioelement radon. Also, the activity levels and/or availability ofnaturally occurring radionuclides can be significantly altered by processesin the oil, gas and mineral mining industries (B. Heaton and J. Lambley,2000). Scales in drilling and process equipment may become enrichedin radionuclides producing technologically enhanced naturally occurringradioactive materials (TENORM). Exposure to TENORM in drillingequipment may exceed OSHA and other regulatory authority standardsfor the protection of both human and ecological health. The occurrenceof TENORM concentrated through anthropogenic processes in soils atoil and gas wells and facilities represents one of the most challengingissues facing the Canadian and US oil and gas industry today (Saint-Fortet al., 2007). The risk of contamination of surface water and ground waterby TENORM accompanies the risk of soil contamination, as TENORMgenerated may runoff of drilling equipment during rain events or if onthe soil surface into surface water sources and/or enter groundwater bytransport through the unsaturated zone.

In a review article in Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T),authors Karbo, Wilhelm and Campbell (EPA Region III leads and Office ofRadiation and Indoor Air) stated:

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) reportedthat thirteen samples of wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas extractioncontained levels of radium-226 (226Ra) as high as 267 times the safedisposal limit and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.The New York Department of Health (NYDOH) analyzed three MarcellusShale production brine samples and found elevated gross alpha, grossbeta, and 226Ra in the production brine. Devonian-age shales containnaturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), such as uranium (U)and thorium (Th) and their daughter products, 226Ra and 228Ra. TheMarcellus Shale is considered to have elevated levels of NORMs. NORMsthat have been concentrated or exposed to the accessible environmentas a result of human activities, such as mineral extraction, are defined bythe EPA as technologically enhanced NORM (TENORM). TENORM maybe concentrated because of (1) temperature and pressure changes duringoil and gas production, (2) 226Ra and 228Ra in produced waters reactingwith barium sulfate (BaSO4) to form a scale in well tubulars and surfaceequipment, (3) 226Ra and 228Ra occurring in sludge that accumulates inpits and tanks, and (4) NORM occurring as radon (Rn) gas in the naturalgas stream.

If this flowback-produced water with elevated TENORM is disposed ofin sewage treatment facilities or other ineffective wastewater disposalprocesses – then the TENORM level in surface water (the receiving streamor river) will be largely determined by dilution offered by fluid flows withinthe waste plant and dilution offered by the water flows themselves in theriver or stream.

So, it is entirely possible that Marcellus Shale flowback and produced fluids(yes I hesitate to call it water because it is contaminated fluid – with manyidentified toxic contaminants; if this were coming from other industries itwould be a hazardous liquid waste) will have elevated levels of TENORM and many other contaminants (see explanation in Appendix 1 below) butlevels of TENORM in the surface water it is going into will not exceedbackground levels, seen in the stream or river system, once it is completelymixed in the stream or river.

But here is the devil in the details as Matt said in his article.Recreationalists fish and boat around these outfalls (this is documentedby CHEC in the Allegheny River Stewardship Project and the PittsburghFish Consumption Project), and we have no idea of the levels of TENORM(or other contaminants) in receiving water near the outfalls before fullriver mixing occurs. Additionally we have no idea of the level of long term bioaccumulation of TENORM (and other contaminants) in fish and otheraquatic resources that may frequent or live in areas where this material isdisposed of in.

Concentrations of TENORM and the many other contaminants in the effluent from treatment of oil and gas flowback fluids will vary in receivingstreams and rivers according to the flow of water in the receiving streamor river and their concentrations in the flowback fluids. Therefore, levels ofTENORM in receiving streams and rivers will reach a peak (everything elsebeing equal) during times of low flow – such as a drought or long periodswithout rain or snowmelt – and peak levels will be higher in the surface waternear the outfall then downstream in the river after it is mixed completelywith water flow from the stream or river. The PA DEP river water samplesfor radium were not taken during periods of low flow but during the fallseason when rain was more plentiful. Furthermore, they were not taken near outfallsof plants accepting oil and gas waste fluids for treatment, before completemixing occurs—therefore, peak levels in these areas were not captured bytheir sampling plan.

Additionally, levels of TENORM (and other contaminants) from sewagetreatment plants and inefficient brine treatment plants will be higher inlow volume streams (such as 10 Mile Creek in Greene and WashingtonCounties and Blacklick Creek in Indiana County) than in large volume riversystems like the Monongahela River. We simply don’t know what levels ofTENORM are like at peak levels in low volume streams during periods oflow flow or in areas just downstream of effluent outfalls before completemixing takes place.

CHEC has data showing that levels of bromides, barium and strontiumexiting the McKeesport POTW (a sewage treatment plant) vary over a day’s sampling; they aredependent on when the slug of produced-flowback brine is introduced intothe system and the slug’s rate of entry into the treatment system. At theMcKeesport POTW, it is customary that the slug of oil and gas waste fluidis introduced into the treatment system at 7pm. One sees that the levels ofthese contaminants in outfall effluent raises sharply over a short period oftime and then falls back to baseline (See CHEC figures 1, 2 and 3), whenthe slug is through the system. Any TENORM, in the oil and gas waste fluidbeing treated, not taken out by the treatment system will reasonably followthe same pattern. That is it will come and go quickly and we have no ideaof peak levels of TENORM or any other contaminants in the stream or rivernear the treatment plant outfall.

What is the solution to all this? Are we to sample continuously – at alltreatment plant outfalls, in river and stream segments between treatmentplant outfalls and water intakes, at all water intakes and in all finisheddrinking water (and I might add in private well water systems that may pullin contaminants from nearby streams and rivers) across the entire areaMarcellus Shale waste fluids are being disposed of? (This would includePennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia). This is exactly whatis necessary to be done to assure protection of drinking water supplies,recreationalists, and the health of aquatic resources if we continue to allowoil and gas flowback water to be disposed of in sewage treatment andinefficient brine treatment plants.

NO – this would be cost prohibitive and impractical to do on the scale thatis necessary to protect public health and aquatic resources. We must usethe precautionary principal here and insist that sewage treatment plants notaccept oil and gas wastewater, period. Batches of oil and gas wastewaterneed to be tested continuously for levels of TENORM and all other possiblecontaminants so that a determination can be made of where the fluids canbe adequately and safely disposed of. Fluids that are determined to behazardous and/or toxic should be transported only by certified haulers andloads need to be properly manifested so there is an accurate accounting ofthe volumes of waste and where it is being sent for ultimate treatment. Thetechnical capabilities and acceptance of brine fluids, of and by, oil and gaswaste fluid treatment facilities must be matched exactly to the realities oflevels of contaminants in the brine fluids.

The intent of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) wasto ensure that there is a “cradle to grave” system to document, handleand dispose of all hazardous and toxic waste from all industries and evenmunicipal authorities in a safe and effective manner. RCRA is basically anextension of the environmental public health precautionary principal – andif implemented and enforced thoughtfully and comprehensively preventsthe formation of new Superfund sites and will assure that the publicand environmental receptors are protected from contaminants in oil andgas waste fluids- be they called flowback or produced water, or brine oranything else.

Figure 1, Time-plot of Barium concentration in effluent from the McKeesportPOTW, sampled beginning 10/19/2010. Hour 1 begins at 19:00 (7:00 PM).A sample was taken on the hour, every hour, for a period of 24 hours. (To zoom in, click on the image.)

Figure 2, Time-plot of Strontium concentration in effluent from the McKeesport POTW, sampled beginning 10/19/2010. Hour 1 begins at 19:00 (7:00 PM). A sample was taken on the hour, every hour, for a period of 24 hours. (To zoom in, click on the image.)

Figure 3
, Time-plot of bromides concentration in effluent from the McKeesport POTW, sampled beginning 10/19/2010. Hour 1 begins at 19:00 (7:00 PM). A sample was taken on the hour, every hour, for a period of 24 hours. (To zoom in, click on the image.)

Appendix 1, Background Information

Hydraulic fracturing (HF) of shale gas deposits uses considerable masses of chemicals, for a variety of purposes to open and keep open pathways through which natural gas, oil and other production gases and liquids can flow to the well head. HF, also known as slick-water fracturing, introduces large volumes of amended water at high pressure into the gas bearing shale where it is in close contact with formation materials that are enriched in organic compounds, heavy metals and other elements, salts and radionuclides. Typically, about 1 million gallons and from 3-5 million gallons of amended water are needed to fracture a vertical well and horizontal well, respectively (Hayes, T; 2009, Vidic, R.; 2011). Fluids recovered from these wells can represent from 25% to 100% of the injected amended water solution (Vidic R., 2011) and are called “flowback” or “produced” water depending on the time period of their return.

Flowback and produced water contain high levels of total dissolved solids, chloride, heavy metals and elements as well as enriched levels of organic chemicals, bromide and radionuclides – in addition to the frac chemicals used to make the water slick-water. Levels of contaminants in flowback water generally increase with increasing time in contact with formation materials. There is abundant evidence that fluids recovered from this operation have high levels of total dissolved solids, barium and strontium, chlorides and bromides

While there is at present considerable scientific inquiry and even controversy regarding the potential of vertical or horizontal fracturing of shale gas reservoirs to contaminate shallow or confined groundwater aquifers (thus exposing municipal or private well water users to chemicals used in the hydrofracturing process and/or toxic elements, organic compounds, and radionuclides that exist in the formation materials); disposal of oil and gas wastewater/ Marcellus shale brine water in sewage treatment plants or inefficient brine wastewater treatment facilities is a direct exposure threat to public health through ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption exposure pathways.

Groups Announce Legal Action to Stop Sewage Plants from Dumping Gas Drilling Wastewater in PA Rivers


Groups Announce Legal Action to Stop Sewage Plants from
Dumping Gas Drilling Wastewater in Pennsylvania Rivers

— McKeesport and Franklin Twp. plants targeted —

(Pittsburgh) – Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper served legal noticestoday on two sewer authorities that have been discharging Marcellus Shale gas drillingwastewater into the Monongahela River watershed south of Pittsburgh. The noticesdetail violations of the federal Clean Water Act by the facilities, primarily for dischargingwastewater without a permit. Both EPA and the Pennsylvania DEP were notified as wellof the legal action. This is the first time a legal action has been filed to stop the currentdischarge of Marcellus drilling wastewater.

The two sewer authorities targeted are the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport inAllegheny County and the Franklin Township Sewer Authority, located in Greene County.McKeesport discharges up to 100,000 gallons per day of Marcellus drilling wastewater intothe Monongahela River. Franklin Twp. discharges up to 50,000 gallons per day into TenMile Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River. The Monongahela supplies drinkingwater for nearly a half million people, including a portion of the City of Pittsburgh.

“We cannot wait any longer to rely on the state and EPA to act,” stated Myron Arnowitt,PA State Director for Clean Water Action. “These sewage plants have been illegallydischarging gas drilling wastewater into our rivers since 2008 without a permit as requiredby the Clean Water Act. They should immediately stop accepting gas drilling wastewaterand if they want to accept it, they should apply for a permit to do so,” Arnowitt stated.

“Our rivers have made a miraculous recovery over the past few decades, thanks – in largepart – to laws that protect the public’s right to clean rivers and safe drinking water. Theselaws are public health laws and their strict enforcement has a direct, positive effect on thehealth of our rivers, our communities, and our citizens,” stated Ned Mulcahy, ExecutiveDirector for Three Rivers Waterkeeper. “We demand that these facilities stop acceptingtruck after truck of this wastewater and that the DEP and EPA take all necessary actionsto ensure that our rivers, our drinking water, and our communities are protected from thehealth hazards posed by improper treatment and illegal discharges,” Mulcahy stated.

Pennsylvania DEP has previously issued consent orders with both facilities that purportto allow the sewage plants to accept and discharge Marcellus wastewater. Arnowittstated, “DEP’s consent orders are private deals that are negotiated without public input.

The public is not notified and there are no public hearings as there would be if they appliedfor a Clean Water Act permit to discharge appropriately treated Marcellus wastewater. Ifthis wastewater is as safe as the gas industry says it is, lets have a public process so wecan see what the impact really is,” stated Arnowitt.

Water samples recently taken by University of Pittsburgh researchers downstream ofarea wastewater plants have shown elevated levels of numerous contaminants found inMarcellus wastewater including: total dissolved solids, chlorides, bromides, barium, andstrontium.

Although DEP had previously issued in 2010 strict wastewater treatment standards formost oil and gas wastewater sources, the new rule grandfathered all existing plants thatare currently discharging Marcellus wastewater. No plants in Pennsylvania that arecurrently discharging Marcellus wastewater are capable of removing contaminants to thelevel required by the 2010 wastewater rule.

EPA Region III Administrator Shawn Garvin sent a letter this week to Acting DEPSecretary Krancer concerning Marcellus wastewater discharge permits. The letter readin part, “These permits do not now include critical provisions necessary for effectiveprocessing and treatment of wastewaters from drilling operations.”

The legal action that is being filed today is the first step in what is referred to as a citizensuit under the Clean Water Act. When government agencies fail to address violations ofthe Clean Water Act this federal law allows any citizen to sue for enforcement of the law.The filing today is the legally required “Notice of Intent” informing all parties of the Clean Water Act violations at issue.

The legal filing from Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper can bedownloaded here.

Clean Water Action has more than 120,000 members statewide in Pennsylvania and isthe nation’s largest grassroots group focused on water, energy and environmental health.Clean Water Action’s 1 million members, participate in Clean Water Action’s programs forclean, safe and affordable water, prevention of health-threatening pollution, and creation ofenvironmentally-safe jobs and businesses. Clean Water Action’s nonpartisan campaignsempower people to make democracy work.

The mission of Three Rivers Waterkeeper is to ensure that communities throughoutSouthwestern Pennsylvania have safe water to drink, clean rivers to enjoy, and themeans necessary to defend their right to both. To accomplish this mission, Three RiversWaterkeeper will engage in education and outreach, work with communities and theirleaders, partner with government actors and NGOs, patrol the rivers, monitor water quality,and hold polluters accountable under the law.

Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action, 412-592-1283
Ned Mulcahy, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, 412-589-4720

Two Tales of Radioactivity

There’s a disagreement brewing about whether or not there are radioactive materials in the Marcellus Shale wastewater. On February 26, 2011, Ian Urbina’s New York Times article reported:

Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

Gross Alpha Particles. This map is based on the Pennsylvania wells which were reported to have high levels of radiation by the New York Times on February 26, 2011.  Please click the “i” icon and then one of the wells above for more information.  Please click the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

On March 7, 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a statement that would appear to contradict the New York Times data.  According to Acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, the situation is as follows:

We deal in facts based on sound science. Here are the facts: all samples were at or below background levels of radioactivity; and all samples showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228.

Can Both Claims Be True?

Of the apparent discrepancy, the Marcellus Drilling News had this blunt proclamation:

It seems that The New York Times’ contention that Pennsylvania is poisoning waterways with radioactivity from Marcellus Shale wastewater was fiction and not science, as is now proven by test results from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

But sound-byte media wars aside, there isn’t necessarily any discrepancy at all. As is usually the case, the devil is in the details.

First of all, it is important to understand that the two organizations are referencing entirely different datasets. More to the point, while the New York Times data is about the produced water itself, the DEP report tested river water. What’s more, in a follow-up article on March 7th, Mr. Urbina wrote:

The Times found that samples taken by the state in the Monongahela River — a source of drinking water for parts of Pittsburgh — came from a point upstream from the two sewage treatment plants on that river. The state has said those plants are still accepting significant quantities of drilling waste.

Because that sampling site is upstream, the discharges from those two plants are not captured by the state’s monitoring plans.

With this perspective, the Marcellus Drilling News’ harsh words come across as misguided. While the DEP statement seems to have been carefully worded to give the illusion of countering the claims raised by Mr. Urbina’s article, in fact, it does no such thing.

CHEC’s Perspective

In Mr. Urbina’s March 7th article, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC)(1) Director Conrad Volz, DrPH, MPH said:

As long as we are going to allow oil and gas wastewater to enter these streams, there needs to be monitoring weekly at least for a whole host of contaminants, including radium, barium, strontium.

According to Mr. Urbina’s March 7th Times article, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to agree with this cautionary approach, requiring tests for radioactivity at water intake plants, as well as a call to check for compliance at the facilities that are handling the wastewater.

This seems like a prudent approach. If the DEP has legitimate issues with the February 26th New York Times data, it was not effectively countered by their March 7th statement. The best way to settle this dispute is through targeted data collection, which in this case means setting up an effective water quality testing strategy.

And isn’t that the sort of work that the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency should be doing anyway?

  1. CHEC manages the content for FracTracker, including this site, https://stg.fractracker.org, and http://data.fractracker.org/

PA Marcellus Shale Production by Municipality

Average 6 month MS Well Production by Municipality (small)Marcellus Shale production by municipality. The darker red municipalities have higher production, illustrating that gas production in these gas wells comes in “hot spots”, particularly in the northeast and in the southwest.

It is no secret that there is money to be made in the natural gas industry, not only for the industry, but for those leasing their mineral rights as well. Pennsylvania law requires that a royalty of at least one eighth of the wellhead price of gas be paid to the owner of the land’s mineral rights.

And yet, we continue to hear stories, such as the one about Ron Gulla, who leased his land, which was subsequently damaged by drilling operations, all for apparently no money. How can this be? According to Mr. Gulla, it was because his gas was “wet gas” which needs to be processed. The DEP website makes no such distinction. Just to be sure, I called the Harrisburg office of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management. Their response was that wet or dry, the drilling operators are required to pay at least one eighth of the wellhead price of gas as a royalty fee.

Is it possible that after all the drilling and hydraulic fracturing and dead fish and ruined farm that there was just no gas produced from that well?

First of all, let’s find Mr. Gulla’s former community. We know from the story referenced above that he was from Hickory in Washington County. In terms of this map, that places him in the middle of Mount Pleasant Township, so let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in that area.

Average six month gas production for Mount Pleasant Township in Washington County, PA, by municipality. Production values are from 7-1-10 to 12-31-10. Click the gray compass rose and double carat(^) to hide those menus.

If you click on the “i” button in the blue circle, then the red shape in the middle of the screen, we can learn quite a bit about gas production in Mount Pleasant Township. For example, we know that there were 94 wells in the township, each producing an average of 57.8 million cubic feet of gas in the six month period of July to December 2010, for an estimated minimum royalty check of just over $30,000. That’s a lot of gas and a lot of money. So where was Mr. Gulla’s?

Average six month gas production for Mount Pleasant Township in Washington County, PA, by municipality and by well. Production values are from 7-1-10 to 12-31-10. Click the gray compass rose and double carat(^) to hide those menus.

If the statewide trend is one of hotspots, at the township level, we are now looking at hotspots within hotspots. While many wells in Mount Pleasant Township produced over 300 million cubic feet of gas in the six month period, many others produced very little. And if Mount Pleasant is a moderately high producer of Marcellus Shale gas, and Chartiers Township to the southeast is a heavyweight, it makes it all the more curious that Cecil Township to the northeast and Smith Township to the northwest have no Marcellus Shale activity at all.

So maybe you have a neighbor who hit the jackpot with the Marcellus Shale gas boom, but does that mean that you will?

Average six month minimum royalty fees by township. Note the large number of municipalities with low or no royalty averages, and the very high dollar amounts in some other communities. Click on the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

From this map, you can get an idea of what the average six month well royalty check might be for a well in your community. The figures for this map are based on the production values, above, times 0.125 times the average wellhead price of gas in 2010. But as we’ve seen in Mount Pleasant, there are some holes where the gas just doesn’t flow.

After taking this to another level of complexity, the lesson is pretty much the same as before: There is money to be made in the Marcellus Shale gas extraction industry–sometimes. As Mr. Gulla’s story reminds us, there are hardships as well. The DEP issued 9,370 oil and gas violations in a period of less than four years. Things can and sometimes do go wrong, and even when they don’t, around the clock industrial action for months on end in your backyard may be at odds with your bucolic lifestyle, or that of your neighbors.

So if you leased your land, would you cash in? At best, you can look at the numbers and play the odds, but there’s only one way to find out for sure.

The Citizen Surveillance Project and Marcellus Shale Development

By Charles Christen, DrPH, MEd – Director of Operations, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

In August and November of last year, we reported on the start up of the Citizen Surveillance Project targeting surveillance and water monitoring of the industry developing the Marcellus Shale deposit for natural gas. I would like to update you on the progress of this project.

Currently this is a two phase project beginning with attendance at a Visual Assessment training followed by an optional Water Monitoring training. Since the start up of this project three visual assessment trainings have been held: Connellsville, Washington and Greensburg, PA as well as a water monitoring training.

To aid in the visual assessment training, a manual has been developed by the partners forming the core of the Citizen Surveillance project. The manual uses information from the Society of Petroleum Engineers in order to provide a detailed description of the well pad selection, drilling procedures, fracturing and well completion. There are also detailed descriptions of water and air related issues and how to perform surveillance with the senses of sight, smell, sound and touch. A section of the manual is also devoted to safety issues when performing surveillance on industry operations. The manual concludes with instructions for a full visual assessment of an industry site and surrounding area.

The project started as a pilot in the fall of 2009 in Fayette County, with the intention of expanding the project into all areas where Marcellus Shale gas industry develops. This project was developed out of the realization that as the number of wells grew the necessary enforcement officials from the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) to provide oversight on the industry would be lacking. The realization of the need for additional “boots” on ground developed into a project to provide education and empowerment to individuals living in and around these gas industry sites. The content for training citizens in surveillance of the industry is provided by the manual for the Visual Assessment training. View the Visual Assessment Manual. You may print and use this manual freely.

If you would like to participate in visual assessment training or water monitoring training you can contact Veronica Coptis, project coordinator for the Citizen Stewardship project. Her contact information is (724) 455-4200 extension 4# and veronica@mtwatershed.com.

Project Partners

Communal Fracture: Concerned Citizens of Western Pennsylvania React to the Various Impacts of Marcellus Shale Fracking on their Communities

By Nate Natale

The 141 acre farm in rural Washington County was a fixer-upper. 
The challenge of clearing the 80 overgrown acres on this property suited Ron Gulla just fine. So did the prospect of renovating the farm’s pond, tenant house and barn- all of which he did.
Gulla loves to work, he also loves to hunt and fish. “When I was hungry, I used to catch fish right out of my pond,” said Gulla. His property was perfect for all of these pursuits. 
That was until his 2.5 acre pond turned black, killing everything in it- including the fish. 
That was until a dream piece of property turned into a nightmare. 
In 2002, like so many in Hickory, Pa., Gulla signed a lease to allow natural gas drilling on his property. In discussing what has happened since, Gulla speaks with an anger and a passion that is impossible to dismiss. 
His story is one of the many in Washington County that is fraught with regret. “There are days that I am so mad, I have tears streaming down my face,” said Gulla.
Gulla was one of the last to sign in Hickory, even though his gut told him it was the wrong decision. “People will say, ‘it’s your fault’ and yes, but it wasn’t for the money…it was for the free gas,” said Gulla. 
Promised 300,000 cubic square feet of gas per year, Gulla said he never saw any of it. 
“Shale gas is wet, you can’t burn it. It has to be processed. They knew all along, we were never going to see that gas,” said Gulla. 
He also said that he was never informed that there would be unconventional horizontal drilling on his property.
Gulla said that the lies and deceit he experienced permeates the industry. “If you sign your mineral rights away, you’re signing your land away,” said Gulla. 
Gulla no longer lives on the farm he said was destroyed by natural gas company Range Resources. It is now owned by the Texas based company, whose Marcellus Division is located in Canonsburg, Pa. 
“They treated my farm like a landfill,” said Gulla. He also said that Range Resources never owned up to destroying his land or his pond.
Range Resources did not respond to a request for comment on this story. 
“I know what I know about this industry, I’ve seen the skull and cross bones come onto my property- the black water in my pond, the frack pits. They are destroying the ecosystem,” Gulla said. 
The Urban Perspective 
Community activists Loretta and Ken Weir, of Pittsburgh, speak with the same passion as Ron Gulla. 
After spending their Sunday afternoon at a meeting of the Marcellus Shale Protest organization, the Weirs shared a perspective from an area where drilling is not allowed. 
In November 2010, The City of Pittsburgh passed the “Pittsburgh’s Community Protection from Natural Gas Extraction Ordinance”, banning drilling within city limits. 
The ordinance alone does not protect the city from pollutants and this is one reason why many residents are still concerned. 
“The ordinance is just the beginning- Pittsburgh sits in a bowl, we have to keep moving out- the water sources are all connected,” said Mr. Weir. 
Quoting the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 27,  “The people have a right to clean air, pure water…”, Mr. Weir said that people’s rights are being trampled on by the natural gas industry. 
Fourteen waste disposal facilities along the Monongahela River accept and dilute water used in the fracking process, returning it to the river- the source of much of the community’s drinking water. 
The chemical solution used in fracking is proprietary, and due to their exemption- known as the Halliburton Loophole- from the 2005 energy bill, the natural gas companies do not have to share its components. 
It is the presence of these components in the frack water, some of which are returned to the river, that cause concern. 
Due to the Halliburton Loophole, the industry is basically self-reporting. “It’s like the fox watching the henhouse,” said Mr. Weir. 
The Weirs said they are frustrated with the lack of oversight and that more was promised. This appears to to be impossible with the budget cuts that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is experiencing. 
“The government has failed to protect the people,” said Mr Weir. 
With a lack of trust in the industry and a feeling of dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts, there is a desire to put the topic in front of the people. 
Marcellus Shale Protest is exploring the viability of putting a referendum on the 2012 Allegheny County ballot for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. 
To the Suburbs
In Allegheny County, municipalities like Jefferson Hills are contemplating ordinances that restrict or ban hydraulic fracturing. 
In terms of percentage of land under oil and gas lease, Jefferson Hills is ranked tenth in Allegheny County with 18 percent. 
“It looks like a new ordinance will go one of two ways: either ban it completely..or allow it in a very small area zoned for industrial activity,” said Anita Barkin, community activist and public health expert. 
Ordinances may not be enough. According to the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Act, the DEP administers the oil and gas well permitting process- superseding municipal ordinances. 
However, the courts have not outlined a clear path on what these layers of laws actually mean. At this point, each case is defining the extent of a municipality’s authority to regulate. 
Tight Quarters 
Suburban fracking creates dangerous scenarios unique to these areas. 
“A well blowout or a fire in a densely populated area would make it necessary to evacuate 5,000 people. No one is prepared to do that,” said Conrad (Dan) Volz, director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.  
“We’ve found that local departments feel inadequately prepared and in situations where there has been an emergency, they’ve played second fiddle to the company. They are also not equipped to do vital air and water testing during an emergency, they have to wait for the DEP to come from a great distance,” said Volz.
Water is also an issue for Jefferson Hills. The Peters Creek Watershed provides source water for the community’s drinking water and functions as a source of recreation. Fracking would put the watershed in a precarious position. 
As for Jefferson Hills’ drinking water, “Marcellus drilling does have the potential to affect drinking water quality. The Clairton Municipal Authority is accepting frack fluid at its plant. The effluent of this plant enters Peters Creek just prior to it’s confluence with the Mon River. Drinking water for most watershed residents comes from the Mon River downstream in Hays,” said Tim Schumann of the Peters Creek Watershed Association.
Barkin and Schumann said community education is working, but more needs to be done.
“There are still many residents that have grown up with shallow wells (there are over 40 in Jefferson Hills) and do not realize that the impact of Marcellus wells will be quite different,” said Schumann. 
“These are not your grandmother’s wells,” said Volz. 
Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
More Violations Than Not
Ron Gulla’s pond was destroyed due to a lack of sediment control. “It was pathetic, a joke,” said Gulla.
Studies show that 28 percent of well violations, recorded by the DEP, are due to improper erosion and sediment plans. 
On average, 76 percent of wells receive violations.
In Ron Gulla’s case, getting the government to notice was the problem. “No one would help me, the DEP, the county, they all pointed fingers,” said Gulla. 
The Great Divide
The natural gas industry has been accused of employing a “divide and conquer” strategy in the communities in which it operates. 
Some citizens are happy to accept financial gain for their mineral rights, while others protest. 
“What about community members who don’t own the leased land, but live next door? They are exposed to noise, light, air pollution…to waste water, but they get no say,” said University of Pittsburgh’s Volz. 
Communities are at risk for divisiveness that comes from some of its members making money, while other members’ health and quality of life are compromised. 
Boom and Bust
Research shows that communities involved with energy boom times also experience behavioral health issues. 
“These communities have been shown to have an increased need for medical, behavioral and social services. Alcoholism and drug addiction increases, as does the divorce rate and even the number of sexual predators in an area,” said Volz.
Communities have also been promised jobs as part of the boom. “We have been tracking unemployment and haven’t seen an influence,” said Volz. 
“Most of the jobs are transient, but even the ones that come from training programs in Pennsylvania, those people won’t stay here. It’s the nature of the field, workers move on  to the next well,” said Volz. 
The Big Picture
Above all, this issue is about money and money talks. 
The natural gas industry is perceived as greedy. The industry has also been accused of preying on the poor, desperate farmers and the elderly.
But, what is happening in Jefferson Hills- an affluent area- points to something else. 
Greed on the part of residents. 
“Where is their conscious? Money and gain, it’s the way we’re programmed. It’s a tough sell, asking people not to take the money, but in the long run it will ruin your property value and your health,” said activist Loretta Weir. 
Long Term?
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has proposed slashing the state’s education budget, while refusing to tax natural gas. His contention is that the state’s economy will benefit by being the center of the gas boom and any taxation will drive out the industry- despite the fact that the gas cannot leave the state. 
“Forty years ago, there was this great insulator, it was asbestos. Look at what we know now. The shale has been there 300 million years, it’s not going anywhere. Until the industry can extract it in a safe way; what’s the hurry? Why risk it?” said activist Ken Weir. 
“One of the biggest problems is that there is little or no effort to consider or measure or account for or control the cumulative effect that this process will have in the long-term on water quality and quality of life and health of residents for local communities,” said Schumann.
The Road Ahead
How important is this issue? “It’s the issue of our time. We will be wrestling with this for the next 100 years,” said Volz. 
The U.S Energy Information Administration estimates the Marcellus Shale may have enough supply to meet the needs of the U.S. for the next 15 years. 
The next 15 years. 
Is it worth it? Worth the health risks? Worth the damage to the environment? Worth the impact on our quality of life? 
For so many in our consume all society, the cash at stake makes it an easy “yes”.
Ron Gulla disagrees. 
“You can’t put a price on quality of life. I was a multimillionaire before Range Resources came into my life and that was based on the quality of life I had,” Gulla said. 
Air emissions from drilling rig

The Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction


This article has been archived and is provided for reference purposes only.

By John Stolz, PhD – Duquesne University, Department of Biological Sciences

The Marcellus Shale represents one of the largest reservoirs of unconventional natural gas in the world.It holds the potential, like other gas and oil reserves, to provide a source of energy and jobs for Maryland. It’s extraction, however, is non-trivial and if done without proper safeguards can result in the degradation of water and air quality, and loss of land use. Over the past year I have had to opportunity to observe ongoing natural gas well activities in Western Pennsylvania, attended public hearings,spoken with disaffected individuals, gas company representatives, and people from other states with gas drilling activities. I would like to share with you some of my observations.Shale gas is called “unconventional” because the gas is trapped in the rock and needs to be extracted.The process, called hydraulic fracturing, involves a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals that are injected into the group at very high pressures (~10,000 psi). Each “frac” may require up to 5 million gallons of water. In Pennsylvania, this water is withdrawn from lakes, streams and rivers.

The large volumes of water are transported to a developing “play” by water trucks and deposited in large impoundments. These impoundments can be several acres in size and hold millions of gallons of water. A typical water truck may hold 4,500 gallons, so it takes several hundreds to thousands of truck trips to fill an impoundment.

The depth of the Marcellus Shale is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet below the surface in Western PA,thus a larger drilling rig is needed. A unique feature of these wells is that they are “horizontal” and may extend outwards several thousand feet in several directions. This is needed as the formation is relatively thin (~150’) in most places. A well pad may have 6 to 12 well heads. Each well produces~1,000 tons of drilling waste (ground up rock and drilling mud) that may contain a variety of salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This drilling waste may be buried on site or, more usually, transported to a land fill.

The well pad itself is 4-6 acres, in order to provide space for the trucks and containers, and impoundments for drilling mud, waste, and fracking. Once the horizontal has been drilled and cased, it is “fracked”. This process involves many vehicles, containers of sand and chemicals, the mixing trucks with fracking chemicals, and the diesel compressors (~200 vehicles). Hence the need for more space than a conventional well. During completion, the well is usually flared.

A completed well pad will typically have several well heads (the “Christmas tree), separators, small compressors, and condensate tanks (to handle the produced water). As long as a well pad is active (the well can be restimulated or used to drill a deeper formation), the footprint is still 4-6 acres. Depending on the number of wells, there may be as few as two condensate tanks or many more. They are sources of volatile organics as they are designed with “blow off” relief valves. Invisible to the naked eye these volatiles can be seen with specially designed infrared cameras.

The amount of produced water may also vary. For Marcellus, the initial flow back has been only about10 to 20% of the amount of fluids that were injected. Over time this “produced water” increases in total dissolved solid (TDS) content. The “brine” can be ten times saltier than seawater, contain high concentrations of bromide, chloride, strontium, and barium, as well as arsenic and uranium. In Pennsylvania, while the condensate tanks have hazard placards indicating the toxicity and flammability of the flow back water, the truck only is labeled “residual waste” and “brine”. Publicly owned wastewater treatment plants (POTWs) are allowed to take up to 1% of their total daily output. In Pennsylvania, there are currently at least 63 POTW’s permitted to take produced water. POTWs are not designed to“treat” produced water but merely dilute the salts.

This has resulted in increases in total dissolved solids(TDS), bromide in particular, in local rivers. The increase in TDS and bromide has caused problems with public drinking water facilities as the disinfectant process (chlorination) creates trihalomethanes (TMH, bromoform and chloroform). As a result many public drinking water facilities in the area have had to convert from chlorination to chloramination to reduce the formation of THMs. However, chloraminated water can cause the leaching of lead from older pipes and fittings. And there will be spills. Over the past 2.5 years, the PA-DEP has cited the industry with over 1,600 violations. Many of these were for improperly constructed impoundments, chemical spills, and surface contamination.

There are other aspects to the industry as well. Methane is a colorless, odorless gas, that needs to be odorized with mercaptan. The product from the Marcellus in Western PA is not dry gas but a combination of other organics as well. Thus the gas needs to be “dried” in refineries. Propane and butane are “cryo” separated in these facilities. These complexes are a source of volatile organic compounds and are frequently flaring off residual organics. They are also flanked by compressor stations that pressurize the gas for the pipeline.

The industry can move very quickly as has been recently demonstrated in Hickory-Houston, PA area,where since 2005 there are now over 80 well pads, impoundments, compressor stations, and other gasfacilities within a five mile radius.

The extraction of unconventional natural gas is heavy industry involving large tracts of land, heavyequipment and vehicles, and an extensive array of pipelines, compressor stations, and processing facilities. The level of surface disturbance is extensive, as has been demonstrated elsewhere (e.g.,Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana). Existing industries such as agriculture, tourism, outdoor ventures (e.g., fishing, hunting, and camping), and wineries, will be lost or significantly impacted. In Pennsylvania there have already been loss and contamination of well water, and loss of livestock and quarantined herds after exposure to contaminated water.<

Summary of Environmental Impacts


  • The amount needed for fracking (5 million gallons/frac)
  • Loss of well (aquifer) water through disruption or contamination
  • Gas migration causing methane contaminated water
  • The fate of the produced water (“treated” at POTWs)
  • Degradation of water quality in local streams and rivers
  • Degradation of drinking water quality (need to purchase bottled water)

Land usage

  • Large amount of acreage needed for well pads and impoundments
  • As long as a well can be “restimulated”, the well pad will remain active
  • Leased areas (former private and public lands) become restricted access
  • Public lands and parks no longer “public” as they are off limits due to safety

Exposure to toxic chemicals (spills, aquifer contamination)

  • Fracking fluids
  • Produced water contaminated with organics, salts, heavy metals, and NORMs
  • Failed or improper casings lead to aquifer contamination

Traffic and road degradation

  • Significant increase in trucks and vehicles cause road and bridge deterioration
  • Trucks may exceed weight and height limits


  • Heavy equipment, increased traffic,
  • Low frequency sounds during fracking
  • Compressors and compressor stations

Air pollution

  • Increased vehicle traffic
  • Well flaring
  • Release of VOC’s from well installations (condensate tanks are vented by design)
  • Compressor stations
  • Well blow outs

Property devaluation

  • Mortgages and home equity loans jeopardized by presence of wells
  • Mine subsidence insurance compromised or negated
  • Land owner ultimately responsible for taxes and environmental damage

EMS and emergency procedures

  • Evacuation plans must be in place for populated areas (a single well blow out can affect more than 1 mile radius)
  • EMS, police and fire must be trained to handle emergencies (well and impoundment fires, evacuations)

Increases taxes to cover infrastructure damage, additional public services and security.

John F. Stolz, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Director, Center for Environmental Research and Education
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, PA 15282

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pipeline and FracTracker Collaboration

We are proud to announce an exciting collaboration between FracTracker and a project run by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – called Pipeline. The collaboration will help to inform the PG’s expansive readership about the diverse issues surrounding natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region – especially in Washington County. For this project, FracTracker’s DataTool will provide a platform for data collection and map creation.

Visit Pipeline | Learn More

Updated Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Production Information

Updated Marcellus Shale well production data for the period between July 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010 is now available on the DEP website and FracTracker’s DataTool. This data is self-reported by the drilling operators, and includes production in the following categories:

  • Natural Gas: Production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf)
  • Condensate: Production in barrels
  • Oil: Production in barrels

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

Gas Production and Well Status

Table 1: Production notes and values for Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale wells, July 1 2009 to June 30, 2010

Table 2: Production notes and values for Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale wells, July 1 2010 to December 31, 2010

Although gas production is the focus of the six month production report, there is enough useful data to learn a few other things about the industry as well:

  • As with the waste report, there is more production reported in the last half of 2010 than the entire preceding year. Although there are more producing wells, my suspicion is that the real reason is poor reporting for the July 2009 to June 2010 report.
  • As corroborating evidence of poor reporting, the earlier report includes significant production from wells that are “Not yet drilled”. This issue has been corrected for the last half of 2010.
  • Only 26 Marcellus Shale wells are reported as plugged. This is fairly impressive, as the earliest Marcellus well in Pennsylvania was from 2006.
  • Over half of the Marcellus Shale wells which have been permitted in Pennsylvania have not yet been drilled. Almost all of these are horizontal wells.

Gas, Condensate, and Oil Production

Table 3: Gas, condensate, and oil production values for Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale wells, July 1 2009 to June 30, 2010

Table 4: Gas, condensate, and oil production values for Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale wells, July 1 2010 to December 31, 2010

The Marcellus Shale is well known as a gas producing black shale formation, but condensate and oil are also produced from these wells in Pennsylvania. There are a couple of trends of note here as well:

  • Although the more recent report is for only half the length of time as the older one, this cannot account for the tenfold decrease in oil production.
  • The amount of condensate nearly doubled, despite the fact that the reporting period was only half as long.
  • Almost all oil and condensate production now comes from horizontal wells.


Now let’s take a look at the geographical distribution of this data. Here, in rapid succession, are the data in table, chart, and map formats:

Table 5: Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale production by county, July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010

Chart 1: Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale gas production by county, July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010

PA Marcellus Shale Oil, Gas, and Condensate Production, July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010. Please click the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

There are a couple of key points about the location information as well:

  • Although Washington county is one of several major producers of natural gas, the vast majority of the Marcellus Shale oil and condensate production in the Commonwealth comes from that county.
  • The leading producers in the state by county are (percentage of statewide total in parentheses):
    1. Bradford (25.7%)
    2. Susquehanna (23.7%)
    3. Washington (14.2%)
    4. Greene(12.3%)
    5. Tioga (8.8%)

Marcellus Shale natural gas, condensate, and oil production in Southwestern Pennsylvania, July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010

Production by Operator

Table 6: Natural gas produced by operator in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation, 7-1-10 to 12-31-10.

Chart 2: Natural gas produced by operator in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation, 7-1-10 to 12-31-10.

The leading producers in the state by operator are (percentage of statewide total in parentheses):

  1. Chesapeake Appalachia Llc (18.8%)
  2. Talisman Energy Usa Inc (18.1%)
  3. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp (15.3%)
  4. Range Resources Appalachia Llc (12.6%)
  5. Atlas Resources Llc (5.6%)

Hitting Close to Home – Gas Pad Fire in Avella, PA

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); Doctoral Student, GSPH

Shale Gas Violations near Avella, PA (small)
Natural gas industry violations since 2007.
Avella, PA can be found by clicking on the image
and then zooming in on the patch of violations
in the center of the map.
Map created using FracTracker’s DataTool.

On February 23, 2011 a section of a natural gas drilling site in Avella, PA caught fire. Luckily only three workers were injured, but the issue still hits close to home – literally. Avella is my hometown. This quiet, farming area is located roughly 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh in Washington County, PA. (See the map to the right.) It has a large school district geographically, with a tiny population. Known primarily for its rolling hills, farmland, and a historic landsite called Meadowcroft, Avella very rarely makes the headlines in Pittsburgh. That very fact is what peaked my concern when a TV news program mentioned that an incident had occurred on a Chesapeake Energy well site there.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection is currently investigating the fire. Initial reports indicate that volatile vapors that escaped while workers were flow-testing (part of which involves separating the flowback fluid from the natural gas), ignited and then caught nearby tanks on fire.  Volatile vapors can include a number of constituents, such as propane and benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. While there is little evidence to suggest that water contamination occurred as a result of the accident (like the 2009 spill near Cross Creek lake), air quality was most definitely affected. The smell of chemicals burning during the fire was even reported by some nearby residents. Thankfully, based on witness and on-site reports, the cooperation between the various emergency responders meant that the fire only burned for about three hours.

On a side note, I find it interesting that Chesapeake immediately refuted reports that hydraulic fracturing was the cause of the fire. Hydraulic fracturing, a process that breaks apart the shale layer under the ground to release the gas, had apparently been completed on the site. However, the volatile vapors originated from condensate, a result of hydraulic fracturing. Semantics.

Video Update: 3/1/11