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The Falcon: Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Major pipeline projects are scrutinized by state and federal agencies for their potential impacts to threatened, endangered, and protected species. As part of the planning process, operators are required to consult with agencies to identify habitats known to support these species and are often asked to conduct detailed field surveys of specific areas. In this segment of the Falcon Pipeline EIA Project, we investigate how Shell corresponded with different agencies in complying with federal and state protected species guidelines.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • More than half (54%) of construction areas are currently forested or farmland
  • Botanical species Purple Rocket and Climbing Fern located in proximity to workspaces
  • 67 Northern Harrier observations documented during site studies
  • One active Bald Eagle nest and two inactive nests in proximity to workspaces
  • Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees discovered as close as 318 feet from workspaces
  • Clusters of protected freshwater mussels, coldwater fish, and hellbenders in the path of the Falcon

Map of Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

The following map will serve as our guide to exploring the Falcon’s proximity to protected habitats and species of concern. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible at closer zoom levels. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Shell’s permit applications detail extensive correspondences over a number of years — as early as August 2015 — with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), among other agencies. These interactions tell a story of locating and cataloging threatened flowers, birds of prey, aquatic species, and bats.

Land Cover Assessment

A number of terrestrial habitat types are present along the Falcon pipeline’s route that will be disrupted during its construction. These are easily determined using data maintained by the USGS that tracks land cover and land use trends often used for understanding geospatial biodiversity. Shell used this data in their ecological impacts analysis and we have used it as well for comparison.

Habitat documentations from Shell’s permit applications

More than half (54%) of land in the Falcon’s construction area is currently forested land (deciduous and evergreen). Shell’s permits describe these areas as “contained cool, forested stream valleys and seeps and rich slopes” similar to the image above, which was submitted as part of Shell’s permit applications. An additional 35% is currently farmland (pasture/hay/crops). The remaining land cover is generally made up of water and wetlands, as well as residential and commercial development.

These numbers reflect the fact that the Falcon will travel through predominantly rural areas. Note that this analysis does not account for disruptions that will result from the pipeline’s 111 temporary and 21 permanent access roads. Land Cover for areas along the pipeline can be seen on the FracTracker map by activating the data in the “layers” tab.

Botanical Studies

In their correspondences with state agencies, Shell was notified that a number of important species would likely be found in these habitats. For instance, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) noted the following botanical species on their watch list would be present:

  • Vase-vine Leather-flower (endangered): documented in floodplain and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Harbinger-of-spring (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • White Trout-lily (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Purple Rocket (endangered): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Declined Trillium (threatened): documented along wooded tributaries and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Snow Trillium (rare): documented in tributary ravines along Raccoon Creek

DCNR requested a survey the Falcon’s route through all of Beaver County and the portion of Allegheny County north of the western fork of Raredon Run. AECOM, Shell’s contractor for this work, surveyed a 300-foot wide buffer along the pipeline route to allow for “minor alignment shifts” as construction plans are refined.

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A final survey report was submitted to DCNR in March 2017. In it, AECOM noted having found multiple populations of Harbinger-of-spring (seen below), Purple Rocket, as well as Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum), also the PA Watch List. FracTracker’s map locates the general location of botanical discoveries nearest to the pipeline route.

Documented Harbinger-of-spring

DCNR’s response to the survey stated that route changes and plans to bore under Raccoon Creek using HDDs eliminated risks to Harbinger-of-spring and Purple Rocket. Meanwhile, Climbing Fern was determined to be in close proximity, but not directly in the pipeline’s construction area. Although, documents note that a number of ferns were transplanted “to further the species’ success within the Commonwealth.” As a result of these determinations, DCNR granted clearance for construction in August 2017.

Short-eared Owls & Northern Harriers

Shell was also notified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) that portions of the Falcon’s workspace would be located near six areas with known occurrences of Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species).

PGC requested a study of these areas to identify breeding and nesting locations, which AECOM executed from April-July 2016 within a 1,000-foot buffer of the pipeline’s workspace (limited to land cover areas consisting of meadows and pasture). One Short-eared Owl observation and 67 Northern Harrier observations were recorded during the study, but that some of these harriers appeared to be nesting just outside the study area. The study area is visible on the FracTracker map, as shown below.

AECOM’s Owl & Harrier study areas

In February 2017, Shell notified PGC that a number of reroutes had occurred that would shift the Falcon pipeline away from a subset of the observed Northern Harrier habitat. Although, there is no mention in the permit applications about identifying potential nest locations in the neighboring areas where AECOM’s biologists observed additional harriers. Nevertheless, PGC’s final determination in August 2017, approved the project, stipulating that, “based on the unusually high number of observations at these locations” work should not be done in these areas during harrier breeding season, April 15 through August 31.

Bald Eagles

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) notified Shell that a known Bald Eagle nest was located in Beaver County. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) noted that two potential “alternate nests” were located where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines bar habitat disturbances that may interfere with the ability of eagles to breed, nest, roost, and forage.

AECOM surveyed these areas in March 2016 and March 2017. The first stage included an analysis of land cover data to determine other areas along the Falcon’s route that may be desirable eagle habitat. In addition to the sites noted above, AECOM determined that Fort Cherry Golf Course (discussed in gerater detail here) and Beaver Conservation District owned land (discussed in greater detail here) would serve as eagle habitat, although in later field surveys no additional nests were found.

The one active nest in close proximity to the Falcon, called the Montgomery Dam Nest, is located just west of the pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. AECOM’s study determined that the foraging areas for a pair of eagles using the nest span the Ohio River and Raccoon Creek.

An additional nesting site was found near Tomlinson Run, along the Ohio River. During initial field observations it was noted that the nest was not in-use and is in an unmaintained condition. Nevertheless, its use by Bald Eagles as recently as 2015 means it is still considered an “alternate nest” and thus accorded protection from habitat modifications. A second alternate nest was found the west bank of the Ohio River. No previous history of the nest had been recorded by state agencies.

Bald Eagle Study Gaps?

Below are maps from Shell’s permit applications identifying the locations of the three nests. These can also be found on the FracTracker map.[/av_icon_box]

USFWS requested that Shell only implement setback buffers for the one active nest at Montgomery Dam. These include no tree clearing within 330 feet, no visible disturbances with 660 feet, and no excessive noise with 1,000 feet of an active nest. Furthermore, Shell must avoid all activities within 660ft of the nest from January 1st to July 31st that may disturb the eagles, including but not limited to “construction, excavation, use of heavy equipment, use of loud equipment or machinery, vegetation clearing, earth disturbance, planting, and landscaping.”

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According to Shell’s permit applications, the reroute that occurred at the Ohio River crossing took the Falcon pipeline away from the two alternate nest sites of concern, and the crossing at the river will be done with HDD boring, thus no impacts will occur. Apparently USFWS agreed with this position. However, as we see in the above maps, the HDD staging area on the WV side of the river (where a great deal of noise will likely occur) is just barely outside the 1,000 foot buffer.

Important Bird Areas

USFWS determined that the Falcon pipeline was also in close proximity to many migratory bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that “direct or indirect, unintentional take of migratory birds may result even if all reasonable measures to avoid avian mortality are utilized.” In particular, the USFWS brought attention to the Raccoon Creek Valley and State Park Important Bird Area (IBA), which is located just south and west of the Falcon pipeline’s two major branches, as seen below.

USFWS recommended a number of strategies, such as co-locating the Falcon pipeline along rights-of-way used by existing pipelines. We see this indeed became the case, as 11 of the Falcon’s 23 pipeline miles in Beaver County are found adjacent to or parallel to existing ROWs.

Additional restrictions were placed on the project in Ohio, where ODNR determined that the Falcon is within range of the Upland Sandpiper, a state endangered bird that nests in grasslands and pastures. Shell was instructed to avoid construction in these habitat types from April 15-July 31 if such areas were to be disturbed. As we can see on the FracTracker map’s analysis of land cover data, there are significant areas of grassland and pasture in Ohio along the pipeline route.

No Peregrine Falcon?

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One absence we noted in AECOM’s birds of prey studies was any mention of Peregrine Falcons, listed as endangered and protected under the PA Game and Wildlife Code. Peregrine Falcons nest in cliffs and bridges along rivers in Allegheny and Beaver counties and are particularly prized by the PA DEP, as evidenced by a prominently displayed booth at their Harrisburg headquarters.

PA DEP Falcon Exhibit

One known nest is located under the East Rochester-Monaca Bridge just north of the Falcon pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. While it is unlikely that activities such as tree clearing would affect falcon habitat, other aspects of the pipeline’s construction, such accidental drilling mud spills at HDD sites or ethane releases along Raccoon Creek, may indeed impact Falcon populations.

Federally Protected Bats

The USFWS notified Shell that the Falcon is located within the range of federally protected Indiana Bats and Northern Long-eared Bats in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and requested Shell conduct a bat “mist net” survey to identify breeding areas. Mist netting involves setting up nylon mesh nets at predetermined locations to capture and document bat populations.

AECOM’s bat survey was conducted from April-July 2016. While bats are known to live in caves and abandoned mines in winter, the study focused on summer habitats — mainly forests that support roost trees — given that tree clearing from building the pipeline would be the most likely impact. These forested areas constituted about 27 of the Falcon pipeline’s 97 miles in the two states. Mist net locations (MNLs) were established at 46 sites along the route, roughly 1/2 mile apart, as shown on the FracTracker map. A later reroute of the pipeline led to setting up 4 additional MNLs in June 2017.

A total of 274 bats from 6 different species were captured in the study, included 190 Big Brown Bats, 2 Silver-haired Bats, 62 Eastern Red Bats, 2 Hoary Bats, and 1 Little Brown Bat. 17 Northern Long-eared Bats were found at 13 of the MNL sites, but no Indiana Bats were captured. Radio transmitters were then attached to the Northern Long-eared Bats in order to follow them to roost trees. A total of 9 roost trees were located, with the nearest roost tree located 318 feet from the pipeline’s workspace.

A captured Northern Long-eared Bat

In January 2018, USFWS stated that, because the Falcon’s construction area is not within 150 feet of a known roost tree during breeding season or within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site, that “incidental take that might result from tree removal is not prohibited.” However, USFWS also stated that “Due to the presence of several Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees within the vicinity of the project footprint (although outside of the 150-foot buffer), we recommend the following voluntary conservation measure: No tree removal between June 1 and July 31.”

Furthermore, the PGC noted in early correspondences that Silver-haired Bats may be in the region (a PA species of special concern). This was confirmed in AECOM’s mist net study. PGC did not require a further study for the species, but did request a more restrictive conservation of no tree clearing between April 1 and October 31.

Bat Study Gaps?

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There are a number of possible gaps in AECOM’s study that need attention. First, the study notes the nearest roost tree is 318 feet from the Falcon’s workspace, but this does not fully represent the likely impact to bat populations. As is seen in the map below, taken from Shell’s permits, this tree is just one in a cluster of five trees all within 750 feet of the pipeline’s workspace.

A dense cluster of bat roosting trees

Furthermore, tree clearing in this area will be extensive considering its proximity to the Falcon’s juncture in Beaver County that also must accommodate a metering pad and access roads. This area is shown in the permit application map below and can be explored on the FracTracker map as well.

A second questionable aspect of the study is that, while the USFWS letter states the Falcon is not “within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site,” this was not proven in the study as it did not identify nearby winter habitats. These omissions are noteworthy given the already significant stressors to bat populations in the region, as well as increasing pressure from oil and gas companies to relax standards for protecting endangered bat species.

A Note on Noise Control

As part of their ability to build the Falcon pipeline, USFWS mandated that Shell employ an “independent noise consultant” to measure ambient pre-construction noise levels at each HDD site and at designated Noise Sensitive Areas (NSA), which are generally determined by the presence of protected bird and bat species. Less is known about the details of this part of AECOM’s study plan for Shell. However, we have located noise monitoring sites on the FracTracker map for reference.

Freshwater Mussels

The USFWS and PGC identified very early in the Shell’s construction plans that the project would likely impact four endangered mussel species: the Northern Riffelshell, the Clubshell, the Rayed Bean, and the Snuffbox. AECOM conducted a survey in May 2016, at the request of Pennsylvania and Ohio agencies at 16 perennial streams along the route in those two states. These are shown on the FracTracker map. In PA, mussels were found to be present at both of the Falcon’s intersections with Raccoon Creek, as seen in a photo from Shell’s permit application below.

Documented freshwater mussels in Raccoon Creek

The results of the Ohio study are unknown at this time. However, we found it interesting that ODNR’s letter to Shell stated that unavoidable impacts could be resolved by allowing specialists to collect and relocate mussels to suitable and similar upstream habitats. Meanwhile, it appears that the USFWS and PFBC have also green lighted construction around the two known Raccoon Creek mussel habitats, as Shell’s applications argue these waters would not be impacted due to the fact that they would be crossing using HDD boring.

Coldwater Fish

The PA Fish & Boat Commission notified Shell that the Falcon may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace. This threatened species is especially vulnerable to physical and chemical (turbidity, temperature) changes to their environment. PAFB explicitly notes in their correspondences that “we are concerned about potential impacts to the fish, eggs and the hatching fry from any in-stream work.” Of note is that these sites of concern are located in HQ/CWF streams of the Service Creek watershed (discussed in greater detail here), as shown on the map below.

Headwater streams in the Service Creek watershed

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Early correspondences with PFBC show the agency requesting that directional boring be used for these stream crossings or, if work necessitated direct impacts (such as open-cut crossings), that these activity be avoided during the spawning season. Shell responded to the request in stating that, with the exception of the Service Creek itself which will be crossed by HDD, the terrain surrounding its headwater streams was not suitable for boring, and would thus require open-cuts.

PFBC’s final determination on these matters is that they generally agreed, with the exception of the HDD site and one headwater stream (S-PA-151104-MRK-001), all other crossings must adhere to seasonal restrictions with no in-stream activity being conducted between May 1-July 31.

In Ohio, we see similar circumstances related to the River Darter, the Paddlefish, and the Channel Darter, all threatened species in the state. The ODNR recommended no in-stream work in the Ohio River from March 15-June 30 and no in-stream work in any of the state’s perennial streams from April 15-June 30.

Eastern Hellbenders

The Falcon is also within range of Eastern Hellbender habitat in Ohio, a state endangered species and a federal species of concern. In particular, ODNR noted that Yellow Creek, in Jefferson County, is known to host the species. Because of this, ODNR requested that if any in-stream work was to occur in Yellow Creek, a habitat suitability survey must be conducted to determine if Hellbenders were present. Yellow Creek’s tributaries are indeed crossed by the Falcon. Whether or not a study was conducted as a result of this is unknown due to our not having reviewed Shell’s Ohio permit applications. The below image, captured from our page on water crossings, shows these locations.

Falcon crossing Yellow Creek tributaries

Allowable Work Dates

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To summarize, there are numerous implications for how Shell’s construction of the Falcon pipeline must accommodate endangered, threatened, and rare species in different states. In particular, Shell must avoid land and aquatic disturbances during different breeding and spawning seasons. Below is a breakdown of these black-out periods. Note that these only apply to locations where sensitive species were found in AECOM’s studies.

Land Disturbances

  • Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls (PGC): No clearing between April 15 and August 31
  • Bald Eagles (USFWS): No work between January 1 and July 31
  • Upland Sandpiper (ODNR): No clearing between April 15 and July 31
  • Bats (USFWS): No clearing between April 1 and October 31

Aquatic Disturbances

  • Southern Redbelly Dace (PFBC): No in-stream work between May 1 and July 31
  • River Darter, Paddlefish, Channel Darter (ODNR): No Ohio River work between March 15 and June 30; no perennial stream work between April 15 and June 30

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Related Articles

Sandhill Crane

Giving Voice to the Sandhill Cranes: Place-based Arguments against Keystone XL

By Wrexie Bardaglio, guest commentator

When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…” ~ Aldo Leopold, on the Sandhill Crane, in “Marshland Elegy”

Dilbit – or diluted bitumen – is refined from the naturally-occurring tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. In March 2017, I applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for standing as an intervenor in the Commission’s consideration of TransCanada’s request for a permit to construct a pipeline transporting dilbit – a project referred to as the Keystone XL pipeline. Below are my reflections on the battle against the permitting process, and how FracTracker’s maps ensured the Sandhill Crane’s voice made it into public record.

A Pipeline’s History

The Keystone 1 pipeline carries the dilbit from Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, and ultimately to Port Arthur, Texas and export refineries along the Gulf Coast. The state of Montana had already approved the Keystone XL project, as had the state of South Dakota. The decision of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission was appealed, however, and has now worked its way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Resistance to TransCanada’s oil and gas infrastructure projects is not new. Beginning in 2010, some Nebraska farmers and ranchers joined forces with tribal nations in the Dakotas, who were also fighting TransCanada’s lack of proper tribal consultation regarding access through traditional treaty territory. The indigenous nations held certain retained rights as agreed in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States government and the nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. The tribes were also protesting TransCanada’s flaunting of the National Historic Preservation Act’s protections of Native American sacred sites and burial grounds. Further, although TransCanada was largely successful in securing the easements needed in Nebraska to construct the pipeline, there were local holdouts refusing to negotiate with the company. TransCanada’s subsequent attempts to exercise eminent domain resulted in a number of lawsuits.

In January of 2015, then-President Barack Obama denied the international permit TransCanada needed. While that denial was celebrated by many, everyone also understood that a new president could well restore the international permit. Indeed, as one of his first actions in January 2017, the new Republican president signed an executive order granting the permit, and the struggle in Nebraska was reignited.

“What Waters Run Through My Veins…”

While I am a long-time resident of New York, I grew up in the Platte River Valley of South Central Nebraska, in a town where my family had and continues to have roots – even before Nebraska became a state. There was never a question in my mind that in this particular permitting process I would request status as an intervenor; for me, the matter of the Keystone XL Pipeline went far beyond the legal and political and energy policy questions that were raised and were about to be considered. It was about who I am, how I was raised, what I was taught, what waters run through my veins as surely as blood, and who my own spirit animals are, the Sandhill Cranes.

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Bardaglio (age 3) and her father, along the banks of the Platte River

When we were growing up, our father told us over and over and over about why Nebraska was so green. The Ogallala Aquifer, he said, was deep and vast, and while eight states partially sat atop this ancient natural cistern, nearly all of Nebraska floated on this body. Nebraska was green, its fields stretching to the horizon, because, as our father explained, the snow runoff from the Rockies that flowed into our state and was used eleven times over was cleansed in water-bearing sand and gravel on its way to the Missouri on our eastern boundary, thence to the Mississippi, and finally to the Gulf.

I grew up understanding that the Ogallala Aquifer was a unique treasure, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, the lifeblood for Nebraska’s agriculture and U.S. agriculture generally, and worthy of protection. I thought about the peril to the aquifer because of TransCanada’s plans, should there be a spill, and the additional threats an accident would potentially pose to Nebraska’s rivers, waterways and private wells.

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The Ogallala Aquifer

Knowing that climate change is real, terrifying, and accelerating, I recognized that a warming world would increasingly depend on this aquifer in the nation’s midsection for life itself.

Migration of the Sandhill Cranes

As I thought about how I would fight the KXL, another narrative took shape rising out of my concern for the aquifer. Growing up in the South Central Platte River Valley, I – and I daresay most everyone who lives there – have been captivated by the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes, plying the skies known as the Central Flyway. As sure as early spring comes, so do the birds. It may still be bitterly cold, but these birds know that it is time to fly. And so they do – the forward scouts appearing in winter grey skies, soon followed by some 500,000 – 600,000 thousand of them, darkening the skies, their cries deafening and their gorgeous archaeopteryx silhouettes coming in wave after wave like flying Roman Legions.

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To this day, no matter where I am, the first thing in my sinews and bones when winter begins to give way is the certainty that the birds are coming, I feel them; they are back. They are roosting on the sandbars in the braided river that is the Platte and gleaning in the stubbled fields abutting it… they are home.

According to The Nature Conservancy:

Scientists estimate that at least one-third of the entire North American population of Sandhill Cranes breed in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska…

Scientists estimate that approximately 80 percent of all Sandhill Cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River during spring migration. From March to April, more than 500,000 birds spend time in the area preparing for the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, the birds may fly as much as 400 miles in one day.

Sandhill Cranes rely on open freshwater wetlands for most of their lifecycle. Degradation of these kinds of wetland habitats is among the most pressing threats to the survival of Sandhill Cranes. (Emphasis added)

Giving Sandhill Cranes a Voice

But how could I make the point about the threat TransCanada posed to the migratory habitat of the Sandhill Cranes (and endangered Whooping Cranes, pelicans, and hummingbirds among the other thermal riders who also migrate with them)? Books, scientific papers, lectures – all the words in the world – cannot describe this ancient rite, this mysterious primal navigation of the unique pathway focusing on this slim stretch of river, when viewed from a global perspective a fragile skein in a fragile web in a biosphere in peril.

In my head I called it a river of birds in the grassland of sky. And I am so grateful to my friend, Karen Edelstein at FracTracker Alliance, for her willingness to help map and illustrate the magnificence of the migration flyway in the context of the three proposed options for the KXL pipeline.

flyway_map

Karen prepared two maps for me, but my favorite is the one above.

It shows an ancient, near-primordial, near-mystical event. Guided by rudders and instinct we can barely comprehend, in concert with earth’s intrinsic and exquisitely-designed balance, and as certain as a sunrise, a sunset or a moon rise, these oldest of crane species find their ways through the heavens. They hew to certainties that eclipse the greed of multinational corporations like TransCanada, who barely even pay lip service to the integrity of anything over which they can’t exert dominion. To say they don’t respect the inherent rights of species other than our own, or to ecological communities that don’t directly include us, is an understatement, and a damning comment on their values.

I was prepared for pushback on these maps from TransCanada. And in truth, the company was successful in an in limine motion to have certain exhibits and parts of my testimony stricken from the official record of the proceedings.

But not the maps.

In fact, too many other intervenors to count, as well as several of the lawyers involved in the proceedings commented to me on the beauty and accuracy of the maps. And not only are they now a part of the permanent record of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, should there be an appeal (which all of us expect), on both sides of the issue, there is a very good possibility they will be incorporated into the formal testimonies by the lawyers as the matter moves through the appeals process.

Taking Action, Speaking Out

Ordinary citizens must figure out how to confront the near-impenetrable stranglehold of multi-national corporations whose wealth is predicated on the continuance of fossil fuels as the primary sources of energy. We have had to become more educated, more activist, and more determined to fight the destruction that is now assured if we fail to slow down the impacts of climate change and shift the aggregate will of nations towards renewable energy.

Many activists do not realize that they can formally intervene at the state level in pipeline and infrastructure permitting processes. In doing so, the voice of the educated citizen is amplified and becomes a threat to these corporations whose business models didn’t account for systematic and informed resistance in public agencies’ heretofore pro forma proceedings. The publicly-available documents and filings from corporations can be important tools for “speaking truth to power” when paired with the creative tools born of necessity by the environmental movement.

Technology is value-neutral, but as I learned – as did many others in the Keystone XL Pipeline fight – in skilled hands it becomes a weapon in the struggle for the greater good.

I will be forever grateful for FracTracker, and will be interested to see how others use this tool in the fights that are sure to come.

EXCELSIOR!

For more background on the natural history of Sandhill Cranes, please view this video produced by The Crane Trust.


Wrexie Bardaglio is a Nebraska native living in Covert, New York. She worked for ten years for a member of Congress as a legislative assistant with a focus on Indian affairs and for a DC law firm as legislative specialist in Indian affairs. She left politics to open a bookstore in suburban Baltimore. She has been active in the Keystone XL fights in Nebraska and South Dakota and in fracking and gas infrastructure fights in New York.

This article’s feature image of a Sandhill Crane is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

FracTracker Alliance makes hundreds of maps, analyses, and photos available for free to frontline communities, grassroots groups, NGO’s, and many other organizations concerned about the industry to use in their oil and gas campaigns. To address an issue, you need to be able to see it.

However, we rely on funders and donations – and couldn’t do all of this without your help!

Volunteers counting trucks supplying a new well pad in PA

3 Community ‘Sentinels’ Honored with FracTracker’s Environmental Stewardship Award

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director

In my earlier conservation work, I was always inspired by the activities of certain volunteers. Whether it was a guy who touched the lives of scores of kids through his outings and mentorship or a watershed maven who was the queen of planting and restoration, there are people who go above and beyond to make a difference, help others, and heal the planet. Some call them saints, others call them stewards, but whatever you call them they deserve our praise.

In this spirit, FracTracker Alliance created an award – in partnership with the Halt the Harm Network – to honor three ‘sentinels’ amongst the thousands of volunteers across the United States working in their communities and cherished places to observe, measure, document and report impacts caused by activities of the oil and gas industry. In the complex universe around these issues, volunteers fill regulatory gaps in oversight and do extraordinary things. Everyday insights from citizens lead to the discovery of problems unnoticed or ignored, to enforcement and remediation, and to new perspectives and initiatives for environmental protection. Whether mapping or monitoring, capturing photos or video, a sentinel is someone watching tirelessly, caring boldly – an indispensable ally in informing science, understanding, and action.

Community Sentinel Nominations

The nomination process launched in July and closed on August 17th, with 27 nominations received from around the country but especially the Northeast. The nominee lineup was a tour de force:

  • Ling Tsou, United for Action – New York, NY
  • Craig Stevens, Food & Water Watch, NYAF, PAF and other organizations – Herndon, VA
  • Diane Sipe, Marcellus Outreach Butler – Evans City, PA
  • Therese Vick, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League – Raleigh, NC
  • Vera Scroggins – Brackney, PA
  • Jim Rosenberg, Fayette Marcellus Watch – Grindstone, PA
  • Kel Pickens, Stop Fracking Payne County – Stillwater, OK
  • Dick Martin, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition – Boiling Springs, PA
  • Leatra Harper, Freshwater Accountability Project – Grand Rapids, OH
  • Michael Fitzgerald, The Finger Lakes Times and Subject2Change Media – Watkins Glen, NY
  • Dory Hippauf, Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition – Dallas, PA
  • Frank Finan, Breathe Easy Susquehanna County – Hop Bottom, PA
  • Karen Edelstein, FracTracker Alliance – Lansing, NY
  • Dana Dolney, Friends of the Harmed – Pittsburgh, PA
  • John Detwiler, Marcellus Protest – Pittsburgh, PA
  • Malinda Clatterbuck, Martic Soul – Holtwood, PA
  • Anne Marie Garti, Stop the (UN) Constitutional Pipeline – East Meredith, NY

An esteemed panel of judges carefully considered the outstanding choices without pause to geography. Judges included:

  • Paul Feezel – Chair, Carroll Concerned Citizens
  • Julie Weatherington-Rice – Senior Scientist, Bennett & Williams
  • Jennifer Krill – Executive Director, Earthworks
  • Francisco “Paco” Ollervides – Leadership Development Manager, River Network
  • Ben Stout – Professor of Biology, Wheeling Jesuit University & FracTracker Alliance Board of Directors
  • Phil Pritchard – Retired, Nature Conservancy et al  & FracTracker Alliance Board of Directors

Award Recipients

In the end, in what were admitted to be very difficult decisions, three winners were chosen.

Dory Hippauf, Therese Vick, and Craig Stevens became the first recipients of the Community Sentinel Awards for Environmental Stewardship. Let’s make the ground shake with seismic applause! In the weeks to come, FracTracker plans to highlight each of these conservation heroes, sharing their experiences and inspiring others.

The Community Sentinels will be duly recognized at a FracTracker Film Night event in Mechanicsburg, PA on Saturday evening, September 12 where they will receive very special artisan-made awards fit for proud display. If you can, please join us for this celebration.

[ticket sales closed]

I’m gratified for the chance to meet and honor these dedicated individuals and lift up the names of all the nominees. I also appreciate the time and thoughtfulness of the nominators who presented such worthy candidates. While this was the inaugural year for the Sentinel Awards, we intend to give them annually and continue to affirm the good performed by good people in communities near and far.

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

Quick Sand: Frack Sand Mining in Wisconsin

Each silica sand mine displaces 871 acres of wetlands and more than 12 square miles of forests and agriculture land in Wisconsin to provide the shale gas industry with fracking proppant.

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Silica sand is used by the oil and gas industry as a way to prop open the fractures made during fracking – and is also referred to as a proppant. The industry’s demand for silica sand is steadily increasing (i.e., 4-5K tons per shale lateral, +86 tons per lateral per quarter), directly affecting the Great Lakes, their ecosystems, and land use. Silica sand is often found in Wisconsin and Michigan, which have felt the effects of increased sand mining demands through altered landscapes, impacted ecosystem productivity, and altering watershed resilience; these impacts will only continue to increase as the demand for silica sand increases.

To better understand frack sand mining’s current and potential effects, FracTracker’s Ted Auch and intern Elliott Kurtz, with generous support from the Save The Hills Alliance, explored mining and land use changes data in West Central Wisconsin (WCW). In their research paper, Auch and Kurtz show the current and future environmental impacts of increased sand mining in WCW in order to supply the oil and gas industry with sand. Not only does this research illustrate what is at risk in the WCW landscape, it also showcases what sand mining has already done to the region.

Key Frack Sand Mining Findings

Land alterations due to silica sand mining in WI

Sixteen percent, or 2,396 square miles, of the West Central Wisconsin (WCW) is made up of wetlands or open waters. These and the other existing WCW landscapes are unquestionably profitable. The forests buffer climate change impacts – to date accumulating between 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 assuming they are 65-85 years old – and have a current stumpage value of $253-936 million.

The 25 producing silica mines in this region occupy 12 square miles of WCW and have already displaced:

  • 3 mi2 of forests
  • 7 mi2 of agricultural land-cover
  • 1.36 mi2 of wetlands (equal to 11% of all mined lands)
    Formerly, these wetlands were one of three types:

    • 18% (158 acres) forested wetlands
    • 41% (353 acres) lowland shrub wetlands, and
    • 41% (361 acres) emergent/wet meadows
Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Why Wisconsin?

There are more than 125 silica sand mines throughout WCW, a stretch of ~16,000 square miles. Previously, the mining industry focused their efforts in Oklahoma and Texas’s Riley, Hickory/Brady, and Old Creek formations, where the land is not as agriculturally or ecologically productive as WCW. Now, more and more mines are being proposed and built in the WCW region. We wanted to determine what this change would mean for such an ecosystem diverse area of Wisconsin – many of which are considered “globally imperiled” or “globally rare” including oak savanna, dry prairies, southern dry-mesic forests, pine barrens, moist cliffs and oak openings.

The St. Peter Sandstone – along with the early Devonian and much smaller Sylvania Sandstone in Southeastern Michigan – is the primary target of the silica sand industry. Carbon-rich grassland soils cover 36% of the St. Peter, where they aid the ecosystem by capturing and sorting 20.9 tons of CO2 per year, as well as purifying precipitation inputs. This ecosystem, amongst many others around sand mining activities, will be dramatically altered if silica sand mining continues at its increasing rate. We will see CO2 capturing levels drop from 20.9 tons to 10.6 tons per acre per year if the highly productive temperate forests are not reassembled and reclaimed to their original acreage, as well as a significant loss (75%) in agricultural productivity on sites that are not reclaimed properly.

Out-of-state mining companies are settling into Wisconsin and displacing the land at a very high rate. As the president of Iowa’s Allamakee County Protectors Ric Zarwell told us by email “Frac sand mining companies do not come from the area where I live.  So efforts to destroy landscapes for frac sand are going to involve Neighbors Opposing Invaders.”

A high demand in silica sand from the shale gas industry will continue to drive this influx of mining companies into WI, providing a potentially collapsed ecosystem in the future. Factors at play include additional – and often much larger – mines under consideration, the average shale gas lateral grows by > 50 feet per quarter, and silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral (i.e., 85 tons per quarter per lateral). Auch and Kurtz’s research paper describes in detail where how much silica sand might be needed in the future, as well as a detailed set of maps depicting land cover and usage in WI.

Mapping California’s State Bill 4 (SB4) Well Stimulation Notices

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Introduction

California passed State Bill 4 (SB4) in September, 2013 to develop and establish a regulatorySanta Barbara Channel_10.7.13 structure for unconventional resource extraction (hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, and other stimulation techniques) for the state.   As a feature of the current version of the regulations, oil and gas drilling/development operators are required to notify the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), as well as neighboring property owners, 30 days prior to stimulating an oil or gas well.  In addition to property owners having the right to request baseline water sampling within the the following 20 days, DOGGR posts the well stimulation notices to their website.

Current State of Oil and Gas Production

The DOGGR dataset of well stimulation notices was downloaded, mapped, the dataset explored, and well-site proximity to certain sites of interest were evaluated using GIS techniques. First, the newest set of well stimulation notices, posted 1/17/14 were compared to a previous version of the same dataset, downloaded 12/27/13. When the two datasets are compared there are several distinct differences. The new dataset has an additional field identifying the date of permit approval and fields for latitude/longitude coordinates. This is an improvement, but there is much more data collected in the DOGGR stimulation notification forms that can be provided digitally in the dataset, including sources of water, amount of water used for stimulation, disposal methods, etc… An additional 60 wells have been added to the dataset, making the total count now 249 stimulation notices, with 37 stimulated by acid matrix (acidizing), 212 hydraulically fractured, and 3 by both. Of the 249, 59 look to be new wells as the API identifcation numbers are not listed in the DOGGR “AllWells.zip” database here, while 187 are reworks of existing wells. A difference of particular interest is the discrepancy in latitudes and longitudes listed for several well-sites. The largest discrepancy shows a difference of almost 10,000 feet for an Aera Energy well (API 3051341) approved for stimulation December 23, 2013. The majority of the well stimulations (246/249) are located in Kern County, and the remaining three are located in Ventura County.

Figure 1. Stimulation Notices and Past/Present Oil and Gas Wells
Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for the legend and to view the map fullscreen.

Well Spacing

As can be seen in Figure 1, the well stimulations are planned for heavily developed oil and gas fields where hydraulic fracturing has been used by operators in the past. California is the 4th largest oil producing state in the nation, which means a high density of oil and gas wells. Many other states limit the amount of wells drilled in a set amount of space in support of safer development and extraction. In Ohio, unconventional wells (>4,000 foot depths) have a 1,000 foot spacing requirement , West Virginia has a 3,000 foot requirement for deep wells , and the Texas Railroad Commission has set a 1,200 foot well spacing requirement. Using Texas’s setback as an example buffer for analysis, 241/249 of the DOGGR new stimulations are within 1,200 feet of an active oil and gas well. Of the 364 hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells DOGGR has listed as “New” (they are not yet producing, but are permitted and may be in development), 351 are within 1,200 feet of a well identified in DOGGR’s database as an active oil and gas well. One of the industry promoted benefits of using stimulations such as hydraulic fracturing is the ability to decrease the number of well-sites necessary to extract resources and therefore decrease the surface impact of wells. This does not look to be the practice in California.

Environmental Media

Following this initial review of oil and gas production/development, three additional maps were created to visualize the environmental media threatened by contamination events such as fugitive emissions, spills or well-casing failures. The maps are focused on themes of freshwater resources, ambient air quality, and conservation areas.

Freshwater Resources

Figure 2. New Wells, Stimulation Notices and California’s Freshwater Resources
Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for the legend and to view the map fullscreen.

Freshwater resources are limited in arid regions of California, and the state is currently suffering from the worst drought on record. In light of these issues, the FracMapper map “New Well Stimulations and California Freshwater Resources” includes map layers focused on groundwater withdrawals, groundwater availability, Class II wastewater injection wells, watershed basins, and the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) National Hydrography Data-set (NHD). Since California does not have a buffer rule for streams and waterways, we used the setback regulation from Pennsylvania for an analysis of the proximity of the well stimulation notices to streams and rivers. In Pennsylvania, 300 feet is the minimum setback allowed for hydraulic fracturing near recognized surface waters. Of the 246 wells listed for new stimulation, 26 are within 300 feet of a waterway identified in the USGS’s NHD. The watersheds layer shows the drainage areas for these well locations. As a side note, the state of Colorado does not allow well-sites located within 100 year flood plains after the flash floods in September 2013 that caused over 890 barrels of oil condensates to be spilled into waterways. Also featured in Figure 2 are the predominant shallow aquifers in California. The current well stimulations posted by DOGGR are located in the Elk Hills (Occidental Inc.), Lost Hills (Chevron), Belridge and Ventura (both Aera Production) oil fields and have all exempted out of a groundwater monitoring plans based on aquifer exemptions, even though the aquifers are a source of irrigation for the neighboring agriculture.   Stimulation notices by Vintage Production in the Rose oil field, located in crop fields on farms, are accompanied by a groundwater and surface water monitoring plan. Take notice of the source water wells on the map that provide freshwater for both the acidizing and hydraulic fracturing operations and the Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells that dispose of the produced waters. Produced wastewaters may also be injected into Class II enhanced oil recovery water flood wells, and several of the stimulation notices have indicated the use of produced waters for hydraulic fracturing.

Ambient Air Quality

Figure 3. California New Wells, Stimulation Notices and Air Quality
Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for the legend and to view the map fullscreen.

Impacts to ambient air quality resulting from oil and gas fields employing stimulation techniques have been documented in areas like Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin , the Uintah Basin of Utah , and the city of Dish, Texas . Typically, ozone is considered a summertime issue in urban environments, but the biggest threat to air quality in these regions has been elevated concentrations of ozone, particularly in the winter time. Ozone levels in these regions have been measured at concentrations higher than would typically be seen in Los Angeles or New York City. In Figure 3, the state and federal ozone attainment layers show that the areas with the highest concentrations of “new” wells and the DOGGR New Stimulation Notices do not pass ambient air criteria standards to qualify as “attainment” status for either state or federal ambient ozone compliance, meaning their ambient concentrations reach levels above health standards. Other air pollutants known to be released during oil and gas development, stimulation, and production include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX); carbon monoxide (CO); hydrogen sulfide (H2S), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), and methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas. It is important to point out that ground level ozone is not emitted directly but rather is created by chemical reactions between NOx and VOCs. Besides ozone, all these other air pollutants are in “attainment” in California except NOx in Los Angeles County. There have not been any stimulation notices posted in Los Angeles County, but the South Coast Air Quality Monitoring District identifies 662 recent wells that have been stimulated using hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, or gravel packing. See the Local Actions map of California for these well sites.

Conservation Areas

Figure 4. New Wells, Stimulation Notices and Conservation Areas
Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for the legend and to view the map fullscreen.

The map in Figure 4, “New Well Stimulations and Conservation Lands”, features land use planning maps developed by California and Federal agencies for conservation of the environment for multiple uses, ranging from recreation to farming and agriculture.  Many of the Stimulation Notices as well as “new” well sites located in Kern County are located in or along the boundary of the San Joaquin Valley Conservation Opportunity; land identified by the California Department of Fish and Game, Parks and Recreations, and Transportation (Caltrans) as important for wildlife connectivity. Oil and gas development inevitably results in loss of habitat for native species. Habitat disturbance and fragmentation of the natural ecosystems can pose risks particularly for endangered species like the San Joaquin Kit Fox, California Condor, and the blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

The California Rangeland Priority Conservation Areas layer was created to identify the most important areas for priority efforts to conserve the Oak Savannah grasslands of high diversity that host many grassland birds, native plants, and threatened vernal pool species. The areas of high biodiversity value are marked in red as “critical conservation areas”. The majority of the new well stimulations are encroaching on the borders of these “critical areas,” particularly in the Belridge oil field. The CA Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program map layer rates land according to soil quality to analyze impacts on California’s agricultural resources. The majority of new stimulations and new oil wells are located on the border of areas designated as “prime farmland,” particularly the Belridge and Lost Hills fields. The Rose field on the other hand is located within the “prime farmland” and “farmland of statewide importance.” Also, well-sites from all fields in Kern County are located on Williamson Act Agricultural Preserve Land Parcels. By enrolling in the program these areas can take advantage of reduced tax rates as they are important buffers to reduce urban sprawl and over-development. Although the point of the act was to protect California’s important farmland and agriculture, some parcels enrolled in the Williamson Agricultural Preserve Act program even house stimulation notice sites and “new” hydraulically fractured wells.

Discussion

While allowing hydraulic fracturing, acidizing and other stimulations until January 1, 2015 under temporary regulations, SB4 requires the state of California to complete an Environmental Impact Review (EIR). New regulations will then be developed on the recommendations of the EIR. The regulations will be enforced by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the agency currently responsible for issuing drilling permits to operators in the state. In some municipalities of California, an additional “land-use” development permit is required from the local land-use agency (Air district, Water District, County, other local municipality or any combination) for an operator to be granted permission to drill a well. In most areas of California a “land-use” permit is not required, and only the state permit from DOGGR is necessary. A simple explanation is DOGGR grants the permit for everything that occurs underground, and in some locations a separate regulatory body approves the permit for what occurs above the ground at the surface. The exceptions are San Benito County which has a 500 foot setback from roads and buildings, Santa Cruz County, which passed a moratorium, Santa Barbara with a de facto ban*, and the South Coast Air quality Monitoring District’s notification requirements, permitting a well stimulation (such as “fracking” or “acidizing”).  For the rest of the state permitting a well  stimulation is essentially the same as permitting a conventional well-site, although it should be recognized that some counties like Ventura have setback and buffer provisions for all (conventional and unconventional) oil and gas wells. Additionally, DOGGR’s provisional regulations do require chemical disclosures to FracFocus and public notifications to local residents 30 days in advance, but lacks public health and safety provisions such as setbacks, continuous air monitoring, and the majority of wells in the notices are exempt from groundwater monitoring,   While public notifications and chemical disclosures are all important for liability and tracking purposes, they are no substitute for environmental and engineering standards of practice including setbacks and other primary protection regulations to prevent environmental contamination. The state-sponsored EIR is intended to inform these types of rules, but that leaves a year of development without these protections.
*Santa Barbara County requires all operators using hydraulic fracturing to obtain an oil drilling production plan from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission. No operator has applied for a permit since the rule’s passing in 2011.

References

  1. DOGGR. 2014. Welcome to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.  Accessed 1/28/14.
  2. Lawriter Ohio Laws and Rules. 2010. 1501:9-1-04 Spacing of wells. Accessed 1/29/14.
  3. WVDNR. 2013. Regulations. Accessed 1/29/14.
  4. Railroad Commission of Texas. 2013. Texas Administrative Code. Accessed 1/28/14.
  5. PADEP. 2013. Act 13 Frequently Asked Questions.  Accessed 1/29/14.
  6. U.S.EPA. 2008. Wyoming Area Designations for the 2008 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Accessed 1/29/14.
  7. UT DEQ. 2014. Uintah Basin. Accessed 1/29/14.
  8. UT DEQ. 2012. 2012 Uintah Basin Winter Ozone & Air Quality Study.
  9. Wolf Eagle Environmental. 2009. Town of Dish, TX Ambient Air Monitoring Analysis.

Controversial Pinelands Pipeline Defeated

For many months, a battle has been raging in New Jersey about whether to convert the coal-burning BL England power plant to natural gas. While coal-burning is relatively more polluting (especially in terms of sulfur dioxide, NOx, and carbon dioxide emissions) and more expensive than natural gas, natural gas power plants bring with them other concerns. In order to repower this plant on the shore of Cape May County, a 22-mile-long pipeline was proposed to be built through the 1.1-million acre New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, a sensitive wetland habitat that straddles the Cape May and Cumberland County lines. The pipeline would have run adjacent to Rt 49, a main highway that bisects the Pinelands. Although the administration of Governor Chris Christie had lobbied strongly for the project, saying that the pipeline would go under and alongside existing roads, opponents of the project felt that that it posed too much of a threat to state- and federally-regulated wetlands and other Natural Heritage sites.


Map of Proposed Pinelands Pipeline plan (defeated). For a full-screen version of this map (including map legend), click here.

On Friday, January 10, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected the proposal by New Jersey Gas to move ahead with the project. According to the New York Times, New Jersey Gas would have been exempt from a ban on additional transmission pipelines through the Pinelands because they were including an offer to acquire and preserve two to three thousand acres of land near the pipeline route. Now, the next decision will be whether to find an alternate route for gas delivery to the plant if it is converted, keep the plant running on coal, or, perhaps, like has been suggested for other sites like the Cayuga and Dunkirk plants in New York State, choose to upgrade the efficiency of transmission lines, and capture energy that is currently lost.

For more information:
New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve National Park Service website
New Jersey Officials Back Pinelands Pipeline NY Post, 12/12/2013
Panel Blocks Gas Pipeline in New Jersey Pinelands New York Times, 1/11/2014
Controversial Repowering of the Cayuga and Dunkirk Coal-fired Power Plants, Earthjustice website
Coal-To-Natural-Gas Switch For Power Generation Is Paying Off In Smaller Carbon Footprint, International Business Times, 1/14/2014

Data sources
National Wetlands Inventory: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Events

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