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
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.
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.
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)
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 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.
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