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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

For the Susquehanna River Basin Impacts Project

An Introduction to the Susquehanna River Basin Impacts Project

By the FracTracker Alliance
In partnership with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club
and Clean Water Action 

Looking at a map of Pennsylvania, three major rivers span the Commonwealth — the Ohio River in the West, the Susquehanna River in the middle of PA, and the Delaware River in the East. The Delaware River Watershed benefits from the active oversight and management of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the Ohio is managed by Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO). The multi-state effort to protect the Susquehanna River is known as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC).

These agencies differ greatly in how they oversee protections of their respective watersheds, particularly in the context of oil and gas development. For instance, the DRBC engages in a range of activities related to water quantity protection (like water supply allocation and water conservation), water quality, regulatory review and permitting, watershed-wide planning, flood mitigation and drought management, and recreational activities. Meanwhile, ORSANCO and the SRBC interpret their responsibilities very narrowly, primarily focusing on managing issues related to discharge standards in the case of ORSANCO, and water quantity in the case of the SRBC.

Major watershed boundaries in PA, with the Susquehanna River Basin shown in pale green. Source DCNR

In this new series of articles, FracTracker Alliance, in partnership with the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter and Clean Water Action, takes a closer look at the Susquehanna River Watershed and its many challenges related to industrial development, including deforestation and sedimentation issues, nutrient loading from poor agricultural practices, sewer and stormwater runoff. A significant component of Susquehanna River Basin impacts can be attributed to expanding oil and gas development. How will the Susquehanna River Watershed withstand future impacts from the oil and gas industry given the SRBC’s limited oversight? A first step in understanding the problem is to look at the state of the watershed today.

Oil & Gas in the Susquehanna River Watershed

As part of the ongoing Marcellus Shale oil and gas boom, nearly 5,500 unconventional wells on roughly 2,000 well pads have been drilled in the Susquehanna River Watershed since 2007. According to the Nature Conservancy, shale gas companies could drill 27,600 additional wells in the Susquehanna River basin by 2030, which would result in approximately 6,900 well pads (assuming four wells per pad, a relatively conservative number given recent trends where up to a dozen wells are being drilled on a single pad). These additional 4,900 well pads represent 31,850 acres of disturbed lands for the pads and access roads alone. Overall, the Nature Conservancy believes that up to 110,000 acres of forested land could be cleared in the Susquehanna River Watershed by 2030. In addition to well pads and access roads, one must also account for the impacts of associated pipelines. Estimates suggest that 12-15 acres of gathering line are installed per acre of well pad.

This explosive growth of the shale drilling industry, combined with declining resources for regulatory oversight, would complicate regional watershed management strategies. A growing body of evidence suggests that watersheds near hydraulic fracturing operations can be impacted by improper waste disposal, trucking accidents, migration of drilling fluids, as well as problems related to land disturbance such as pipeline and access road stream crossings, sedimentation and runoff (needs a reference). And while there are two major water monitoring programs operating in the Susquehanna River, one run by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and the other operated by the SRBC, significant questions remain about their ability to assess the Susquehanna River’s water quality. These concerns primarily stem from the infrequent and patchwork-like coverage of their sampling regimes, as well as inconsistencies in indicators measured at different sites.

Existing Water Monitoring Efforts

Watershed testing is key to understanding how industrial development affects water quality. It also significantly informs mitigation strategies. In this first map of the series (below), we have put together several layers to help illustrate the state of water testing in the Susquehanna River Basin. This map can be used to obtain summary information about unconventional oil and gas activity and monitoring efforts at the watershed level by clicking on individual features.

Note that there are two separate layers on this map depicting summary data — one outlined in dark green and one in light green, both at HUC-08 level. The dark green outlines are in PA only and contain oil and gas summaries of wells and violations. The light green outlines show agency-based monitoring activity, and are not restricted to PA boundaries. The reason for the two layers is that states classify oil and gas wells differently and so cannot be combined easily.

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The Susquehanna River Basin has over 49,000 miles of waterways, according to the SRBC. While it may not be possible to fully document the impacts that the oil and gas industry has on the basin, there are some efforts underway to chronicle changes to the river system. In this map, we look at the efforts of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies to test the waters throughout the region, which range from periodic grab samples to automated data loggers that constantly evaluate several measures of water quality. There are advantages to both methods, as data loggers can capture short term spikes in conductivity, for example, that monthly sampling would likely miss altogether. However, grab sampling allows for a more in-depth analysis of the water in a laboratory than what the data loggers can provide.

While oil and gas is the focus of the map, it is not the only concern of the SRBC. Thus, considerable testing occurs in areas that are not seeing drilling activity. The drilling regions are shown on the map as a great orange arc, extending from Indiana County in the west-central part of Pennsylvania all the way to Susquehanna county in the Northern Tier. If you zoom in on this region, data for individual unconventional wells will become visible, along with permits for wells that have yet to be been drilled, and violations that have been issued by DEP.

Clusters of Development and Oversight

In some regions of the Susquehanna basin, there are significant clusters of oil and gas activity without a corresponding governmental monitoring regimen. Other areas have significant monitoring coverage. In many cases, periodic grab samples are taken from the same sites as data loggers – and may therefore appear twice on our map – to capture both aspects of monitoring activity. Our map can be used to find quick summary data for a given watershed.  For example, the Upper Susquehanna-Tunkhannock watershed is being monitored with 53 testing sites and nine data loggers. The same region has 2,178 wells, and 2,347 violations associated with these wells.

We can also use the map to focus on concerns at different scales. The cluster of drilling activity in Ulysses Township, seen below, resulted in a number of violations (shown in yellow). Due to historical impact of the oil and gas industry in this sub-watershed, additional monitoring locations might be called for.

While we think that it is important to protect all the Susquehanna’s waters, certain areas are more fragile than others. For instance, headwater streams that are designated as high quality (HQ) or exceptional value (EV) are vital to the overall health of the river system and their protection is required by Pennsylvania law. However, many headwaters streams have no monitoring despite heavy oil and gas drilling, as can be seen in the below map. We have included HQ/EV designated streams on the map, although due to the large amount of data these streams are not displayed by default. They can be seen by activating the layer.

Broader Implications

The Susquehanna River provides drinking water to 4.1 million people, including residents in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In addition, through water that is diverted to areas outside the watershed, it is estimated that the Susquehanna also serves as a drinking water supply for 2 million people in more populated areas such as Baltimore, MD and Chester County, PA. With clean drinking water hanging in the balance, and the potential build-out of thousands more natural gas well pads in the watershed, it is more important than ever to understand how oil and gas activity could affect the watershed.

The Pennsylvania Constitution reminds us of our right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the environment. Prior to the adoption of the Environmental Rights Amendment — 80 years ago this year — and long before the federal Clean Water Act, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the state level Clean Streams Law in recognition of the need to protect the integrity of our valuable aquatic resources. In the spirit of this tradition to lead on clean water issues, the SRBC, Pennsylvania, and surrounding states must commit to putting the protection and preservation of the Susquehanna River watershed at the forefront of decision-making within the basin.

In future installments of this series, we seek to reveal gaps in watershed and land management plans in order to evaluate what these risks mean for the people and environments of the Susquehanna River Basin. The mapping and analysis provided in this series will be used to frame a series of conversations throughout the Basin with the goal of encouraging concerned residents to become more involved in public discussions about watershed management planning. Further, this project will result in recommendations for tangible solutions to filling oversight and management gaps and communicate these findings to relevant agencies. Only with adequate information can the public ensure strong protections for this life-sustaining waterway. Recognizing the important work that the SRBC has done in recent years, we also hope to identify areas where the Commission can direct additional resources to analyzing the cumulative impacts of shale gas development and expand their oversight strategies.

Top: fair use image by Nicholas A. Tonelli