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Susquehanna River Basin map article #2

Violations and Monitoring in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin

The Susquehanna River is a 444-mile long waterway extending from the area around Cooperstown, New York to the Chesapeake Bay. In Pennsylvania, the basin includes more than 37,000 miles of streams that feed into the river, which capture the precipitation of more than 20,000 square miles of land, and is home to over 3.3 million people.

The region has been heavily impacted by oil and natural gas extraction in recent years; more than 5,500 unconventional wells and roughly 13,500 conventional wells have been drilled in the PA segment of the basin since 2000. Unconventional wells, in particular, have brought industrial-scaled activity, pollution, and waste products to a wide area of the basin, with especially heavy development occurring in three counties along Pennsylvania’s northern tier – Bradford, Susquehanna, and Tioga.

Several governmental agencies are involved with monitoring impacts to this massive watershed. This article focuses on the Pennsylvania portion of the basin, and examines how capable agency-run monitoring efforts are in capturing oil and gas (O&G) related pollution events. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the US Geological Survey (USGS), and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) maintain a combined network of 274 monthly “grab sample” monitoring sites and 58 continuous data loggers in the Pennsylvania portion of the river basin. Meanwhile, between January 1, 2000 and February 7, 2017, the DEP logged 6,522 on the O&G violations compliance report within the same region. More than three out of every four of these violations have been assessed to unconventional wells, even though only one out of every four active wells in the basin is categorized as such.

Map of O&G Monitoring & Violations in PA’s Susquehanna River Basin

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Limitations of Monitoring Efforts

Grab samples obtained from official monitoring locations are the preferred method for regulatory purposes in understanding the long-term health of the river system. Researchers can test for any number of analytes from samples that are collected in-stream, but analyzed in certified laboratories. However, samples from these locations are collected periodically – usually once per month – and therefore are very likely to miss the effects of a significant spill or issue that may impact surface water chemistry for a number of hours or days before being diluted and washing downstream.

Continuous data loggers give regulators a near real-time assessment of what is happening in selected points in the basin, usually at 15-minute intervals. While there are numerous events that contribute to fluctuations in these measurements, these data loggers would be the most likely instruments available to register an event impacting the surface water within the basin. However, there are unique issues with data loggers. For instance, available data from these data loggers are much more limited in scope, as temperature, pH, and conductivity are typically the only available analytes. In addition, because the analysis occurs on site, the results carry less weight than laboratory results would. Finally, even though data loggers collect data at rapid intervals, only some are equipped to send data real-time to agency offices. Some data loggers must be manually collected on a periodic basis by program managers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for monitoring in the Susquehanna River Basin is that it is simply not practical to monitor in all places likely to be impacted by oil and gas operations. Testing within the jurisdiction of the Susquehanna River Basin is actually fairly extensive when compared to other regions, such as the Ohio River Basin. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission – the equivalent of the SRBC for the Ohio River Basin – only monitors basic analytes like total dissolved solids at 29 locations, all at or near the main stem of the river. However, none of the agencies monitoring water quality in the Susquehanna River Basin have capacity to test everywhere. On average, there is one testing location for every 111 miles of rivers and streams within the basin.

Case Studies

If agency-based monitoring is so limited, then the important question is: How well do these efforts capture oil and gas-related impacts? Some violations are more likely to impact surface water quality than others. This article takes a closer look at some of the bigger problem areas within the basin, including the Dimock region in Susquehanna County, Leroy Township in Bradford County, and Bell Township in Clearfield County.

Dimock

Map of O&G violations and water monitoring near Dimock, PA

O&G violations and water monitoring near Dimock, PA. Note that multiple violations can occur at the same location. Click to expand map.

The highest concentration of oil and gas violations in the Susquehanna Basin is located in the townships of Dimock and Springville, in Susquehanna County, PA, with a total of 591 incidents reported on the compliance report. This makes the region the highest concentration of O&G violations in the entire state. Many of these violations are related to the systemic failure of well integrity, resulting in the contamination of numerous groundwater supplies. In terms of how these might affect surface water, 443 of the violations are in areas that drain into the Thomas Creek-Meshoppen Creek subwatershed by the southern edge of Springville Township, while most of the rest of the violations drain into the parallel West Branch of Meshoppen Creek.

The USGS operates a monthly monitoring location in the middle of the cluster of violations, at the confluence of Burdick and Meshoppen creeks, just north of the Dimock’s southern border. While this location might seem ideal at first, only 180 of the 443 violations in the subwatershed are upstream of the grab sample site. There is another water monitoring location that captures all of these violations in the Meshoppen subwatershed, but it is more than 15 miles downstream. (link to EJ article about Dimock)

Leroy Township

Map of O&G Violations and monitoring near Leroy Township, PA

O&G Violations and monitoring near Leroy Township, PA. Click to expand map.

Compared to the huge amount of oil and gas violations throughout the Dimock area, Leroy Township in Bradford County looks relatively quiet. It also appears to be well covered by monitoring locations, including a data logger site near the western edge of the township, a centrally located monthly monitoring location, as well as another monthly grab sample site upstream on Towanda Creek, just beyond the eastern boundary in Franklin Township.

And yet, this area was hit hard in the early part of the decade by two significant spills. On April 19, 2011, Chesapeake Appalachia lost control of the Atlas 2H well, with thousands of gallons of flowback fluid spilling onto the countryside and into the nearby Towanda Creek.

A little over a year later on July 4, 2012, a second major spill in the township saw 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid hit the ground. According to the DEP compliance report, this did not make it into the waterways, despite the gas well being located only about 550 feet from Towanda Creek, and less than 300 feet from another unnamed tributary.

Both incidents were within a reasonable distance of downstream monitoring locations. However, as these are grab sample sites that collect data once per month, they can only offer a limited insight into how Towanda Creek and its tributaries were impacted by these notable O&G related spills.

Bell Township

Map of O&G violations and monitoring near Bell Township, PA. Susquehanna River Basin project

O&G violations and monitoring near Bell Township, PA. Click to expand map.

Bell Township is a small community in Clearfield County along the banks of the West Branch Susquehanna River. The northwestern portion of the township ultimately drains to the Ohio River, but all of the violations in Bell Township are within the Susquehanna River Basin.

Two significant incidents occurred in the township in 2016. On February 18, 2016, Alliance Petroleum Corp lost control of the McGee 11 OG Well, located less than 250 feet from Deer Run. According to the oil and gas compliance report, control of the well was regained five days later, after releasing unspecified quantities of gas, produced fluid, and crude oil. On December 5th of the same year, Exco Resources was cited for allowing 30 barrels (1,260 gallons) of produced fluid to spill at the Clyde Muth M-631 Wellpad in Bell Township.

A United States Geological Survey monthly monitoring location along the West Branch Susquehanna in nearby Greenwood Township is upstream, and could capture the effects of spills throughout much of Bell Township. However, the incident at the Clyde Muth well pad occurred in the Curry Run subwatershed, which meets up with the West Branch Susquehanna downstream of the monitoring location, so any pollution events in that area will not be reflected by monitoring efforts.

Conclusions

In the case of Dimock and Springville townships, we see how official water monitoring efforts capture only a fraction of the notorious cluster of wells that have resulted in hundreds of violations over the past decade. There could scarcely be a better candidate for systematic observation, and yet only a single grab sample site covers the immediate vicinity. Leroy Township does not have the same quantity of impacts as Dimock, but it did see one the worst blowouts in the recent history of O&G operations in Pennsylvania. The area is relatively well covered by grab samples sites, but due to the monthly sampling schedule, these locations would still be unlikely to capture significant changes in water quality. In Bell Township, much of the area is upstream of a monthly grab sample site, but the nearest downstream monitoring location to a major spill of produced fluid that occurred here is more than 17 miles away from the incident as the crow flies.

It should be noted that there are a number of industries and activities that contribute to water pollution in Pennsylvania, and as a result, the monitoring efforts are not specifically designed to capture oil and gas impacts. However, the compliance record shows heavy impacts from oil and gas wells in the basin, particularly from modern unconventional wells.

While the network of government-operated manual monitoring locations and data logger sites are fairly extensive in Susquehanna River Basin, these efforts are not sufficient to capture the full extent of oil and gas impacts in the region. Finding evidence of a small to medium sized spill at a site with monthly testing is unlikely, as contaminated water doesn’t stay in place in a dynamic river system. Data loggers also have a limited capacity, but are a useful tool for identifying substantial changes in water chemistry, and could therefore be employed to identify the presence of substantial spills. As such, it might be beneficial for additional data loggers to be distributed throughout the basin, particularly in areas that are heavily affected by the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, given resource gaps and staff cuts within agencies tasked with protecting the river basin, agencies should strongly consider utilizing networks of volunteers to augment their limited monitoring networks.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Drilling rig in Ohio, December 2015

Ohio Shale Country Listening Project Part 1

Listening Project Partners: CURE, OOC, & FracTracker

The below industry quote divides the world into two camps when it comes to horizontal hydraulic fracturing: those who are for it and those who are against it:

Fracking has emerged as a contentious issue in many communities, and it is important to note that there are only two sides in the debate: those who want our oil and natural resources developed in a safe and responsible way; and those who don’t want our oil and natural gas resources developed at all.
– Energy from Shale (an industry-supported public relations website)

The writer imagines a world in black and white – with a clear demarcation line. In reality, it is not so simple, at least not when talking to the people who actually live in the Ohio towns where fracking is happening. They want the jobs that industry promises, but they worry about the rising costs of housing, food, and fuel that accompany a boomtown economy. They want energy independence, but worry about water contamination. They welcome the opening of new businesses, but lament the constant rumble of semi-trucks down their country roads. They are eager for economic progress, but do not understand why the industry will not hire more locals to do the work.

In short, the situation is complicated and it calls for a comprehensive response from Ohio’s local and state policy makers.

Through hefty campaign contributions and donations to higher learning institutions, the oil and gas industry exerts undue influence on Ohio’s politics and academic institutions. Many media outlets covering the drilling boom also have ties to the industry. Therefore, industry has been able to control the message and the medium. Those who oppose oil and gas in any way are painted as radicals. Indeed, some of Ohio’s most dedicated anti-fracking activists are unwavering in their approach. But most of the people living atop the Utica Shale simply want to live peacefully. Many would be willing to co-exist with the industry if their needs, concerns, and voices were heard.

This project attempts to give these Ohioans a voice and outsiders a more accurate representation about life in the Utica Shale Basin. The report does not engage in the debate about whether or not fracking should occur – but, rather, examines the situation as we currently find it.

Listening Project Summary

The Ohio Shale Country Listening Project is a collaborative effort to solicit, summarize, and share the perspectives and observations of those directly experiencing the shale gas boom in eastern Ohio. The project is led by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC)’s Communities United for Responsible Energy (CURE), with support from the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), FracTracker Alliance, and the Laborers Local 809 of Steubenville. Policy Matters Ohio and Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services offered resources and time in drafting the final policy recommendations.

Over the course of six months, organizers from the Laborers Local 809 and OOC worked with a team of nearly 40 volunteers to survey 773 people living in the heart of Utica Shale country. Respondents are from eastern Ohio, ranging from as far north as Portage County to as far south as Monroe County. A small number of respondents hail from across the border in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but the overwhelming majority are from Carroll (321), Columbiana (230), Jefferson (70), Harrison (30) and Belmont (28) counties.

Respondents were asked to talk about their family and personal history in the community where they live, their favorite things about their community and what changes they have noticed since the arrival of shale gas drilling using horizontal hydraulic fracturing or fracking. They were also asked to describe their feelings about oil and gas development as either positive or negative and what they believed their community would be like once the boom ends. Finally, respondents were also asked how concerned or excited they are about 11 possible outcomes or consequences of fracking.

Summary of Recommendations

  • Create incentives for companies to hire local workers; and increase transparency about who drilling and subcontracting companies are employing
  • Tax the oil and gas industry fairly with a severance tax rate of at least 5%; use this revenue to support affected communities to mitigate the effects of the boom and bust cycle
  • Increase the citizen participation in county decision-making on how additional sales tax or severance tax revenue is spent and how the county deals with the effects of the drilling boom
  • Increase transparency around production and royalties for landowners and the public
  • Set aside funding at the local level for air and water monitoring programs
  • Mitigate noise and emissions as much as possible with mandatory sound barriers and green completion on all fracking wells
  • Create mechanisms to protect sensitive areas from industry activity
  • Levy municipal impact fees to address issues associated with drilling
  • Better protect landowners during leasing negotiation process and from potential loss of income due to property damage

Conclusion

The more shale gas wells a community has, the less popular the oil and gas industry appears to be. Carroll County is the most heavily drilled county in Ohio, and more than half the respondents said they view the drilling boom negatively. Moreover, many residents say they are not experiencing the economic benefits promised by the oil and gas industry. They see rent, cost of gas, and groceries rising as the drilling and pipeline companies hire workers from out of state and sometimes even out of the country. Residents see more sales tax revenue coming into their counties but also see their roads destroyed by large trucks. They say they are experiencing more traffic delays and accidents than ever before. Ohioans love their community’s pastoral nature but are watching as the landscape and cropland get destroyed. As it is playing out now, the boom in shale gas drilling is not fulfilling the promises made by industry. Locals feel less secure and more financially strapped. Many feel their towns will soon be uninhabitable. It is up to state and local governments to hold industry accountable and make it pay for the impacts it creates.

Infrastructure associated with horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Images from Ted Auch and FracTracker’s Oil & Gas Photos Archive:

Inception & Evolution of the Listening Project

The Ohio Shale Country Listening Project started in February 2014 with a conversation between Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) staff and a veteran organizer who once worked on mountain top removal in a large region of West Virginia. The OOC organizer lamented the difficulty of organizing across a large geography around a specific issue – in this case, fracking. How do you find out what the people want without dictating to the community? The more experienced organizer immediately responded: What about a listening project? She connected OOC to the Shalefield Organizing Project in Pennsylvania whose organizers helped OOC think through what a listening project might look like in Ohio.

The project took on several iterations. First, OOC planned to focus the listening project solely on Columbiana County, which at the time was the third most fracked county in Ohio. Next, community leaders in Carroll County, the most heavily drilled county in the state, suggested the project also focus there. Eventually, as it became clear that the shale play was moving further south in Ohio, the project expanded into other counties such as Belmont, Harrison, and Jefferson. While attending a public hearing on pipeline construction in Portage County, OOC staff met an organizer from the Laborers Local 809 out of Steubenville. The organizer expressed interest in joining the project. Meanwhile, OOC had been in discussions with the Ohio Environmental Coalition (OEC) about the need to share the stories of people living in the middle of a fracking boom. OEC agreed to join the project. Finally, FracTracker also came into the fold, eager to assist in analyzing and mapping data gathered during the effort.

ListeningProject_Volunteer

A listening project volunteer surveys a shopper at Rogers Open Air Market

OOC staff solicited the help from about 40 volunteers to form the “Listening Project Team” who surveyed their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Volunteers met four times over the course of six months to discuss the project and strategize about how to reach more people with the survey. Most of the volunteer team came from Columbiana and Carroll Counties. The Laborers Local 809 also distributed the surveys to their members. Members of the team canvassed neighborhoods, attended local festivals, set up a booth at Rogers Open Air Market (photo left) and distributed an online version of the survey through Facebook and email. OOC staff spoke at college classes at Kent State-Salem and Kent State-East Liverpool, and solicited input from students in attendance.

Listening project respondents by location

The project’s initial goal was to hit a target of 1,000 – 1,500 survey responses. In the end the team fell short of this number, but were able to reach 773 people living in the Utica Shale area. This barrier is mostly due to the rural nature of the communities surveyed, which makes it more difficult to reach a large number of people in a short timeframe. The most responses came from Carroll County – 321 surveys. Columbiana County represented the second largest group of respondents with 230 surveys. Seventy people from Jefferson County, 30 people from Harrison County, 28 from Belmont County filled out the survey. The final 80 responses came from Mahoning, Stark, Summit and Tuscarawas Counties. Finally, nearly fifty responses came from Pennsylvania and West Virginia residents who live along the Ohio border (see Figure right). We promised survey respondents that all names and information would be kept confidential with survey responses presented only in aggregate.

Groundwater Complaints to PADEP Compiled by Times-Tribune

In a May 19th article published in the Scranton Times-Tribune, Laura Legere discusses data that she has compiled from a Right-to-know law request to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP).  The data show 969 complaints between 2008 and the fall of 2012.  According to the article, 161 of these complaints include determination letters where PADEP indicates some sort of link between oil and gas activity and impacted groundwater supplies. The Times-Tribune data has been geolocated and mapped by the FracTracker Alliance:


Map showing groundwater complaints to PADEP from 2008 through Fall 2012. Orange-red dots indicate instances where PADEP has established come connection between drilling activity and groundwater impacts, yellow dots mean that PADEP analysis is still pending, and green dots indicate that PADEP has not established such a connection. Please note that the locations are not exact, and that in many instances there are multiple records at a single location on the map. Click on “Fullscreen” to access additional mapping tools.

According to our correspondence with Ms. Legere, there are future plans to release the source documents to the public as well, once needs to protect the privacy of the complainants have been addressed.

We have also added this data to our US Map of Suspected Well Water Impacts:


US Map of Suspected Well Water Impacts. Here, the Times-Tribune data have been represented by light blue dots. Due to crowding from other layers, it is necessary to zoom in to Pennsylvania to see all of the data. For more information on this map, please click on “Fullscreen” and then the “About” tool.