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Drilling, Emergency Preparedness, & Public Engagement

By Danny Kallich, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project

This article examines whether emergency responders are prepared in rural areas for oil and gas drilling emergencies, how people may be put at risk if the proper procedures aren’t in place, and other critical safety questions that citizens in Southwest Pennsylvania should be asking.
Drilling and populations as they relate to emergency preparedness in SW PA

Maps of wells per sq. mile and people per well in Washington County, PA

The rapid spread of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) across Pennsylvania has highlighted the need for state, county, and municipal agencies to regulate industry activity and protect the public on several fronts. In particular, comprehensive emergency preparedness and response specific to natural gas development is an obvious necessity for residents living within close proximity of wells, compressor stations, and other stages of UNGD.

While experts in the field of emergency planning are rightfully responsible for creating and executing emergency plans, the Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) defines citizens’ rights to engage in the process, both through open records requests and public meetings with local emergency planners. EPCRA establishes roles and requirements for emergency planners while clarifying the rights of citizens to engage in dialogue with those responsible for safety about potentially harmful industrial activity in their community.

Unique Emergency Preparedness Challenges

UNGD presents a unique set of challenges for residents and emergency planners. The high likelihood that UNGD will be located in a rural area not typically supporting industrial use argues for the need for special treatment by emergency planners. Furthermore, responding to a UNGD emergency requires specialized training that is not mandated for local first responders, often volunteer fire fighters. While local first responders cannot be expected to specialize in UNGD related emergencies, it takes many hours for the contracted well-fire specialists, Texas-based Wild Well Control, to arrive and mitigate an emergency situation. The interim period between the arrival of local and county first responders and the arrival of Wild Well Control is, nonetheless, a critical time during which a system for consistent updates to nearby residents should be a priority. An emergency situation, as demonstrated by the February 11, 2014 Chevron Appalachia well fire, discussed below, can affect a community in a variety of ways, even if evacuation is not necessary.

Chevron Appalachia Incident, Greene County, PA

Testing The System:

Using Right-To-Know requests to gauge transparency & citizen awareness

The opportunities for citizen comment and engagement with emergency planners are limited and not well publicized. The dearth of clear and consistent means of communication between residents and those responsible for emergency planning provides a noteworthy opportunity to test the provisions of EPCRA as they relate to UNGD.

In this regard, testing the emergency response system related to oil and gas drilling emergencies is intended to analyze existent emergency plans, municipal preparedness, communication between county, municipal, and industry emergency planners, and perhaps most importantly, how much of this information is available to citizens.

The transparency of the system was tested by filing Right-To-Know requests. These public information requests were filed with nine municipalities in various counties across the state of Pennsylvania. All filed requests specifically asked for “all available county, municipal, and company generated emergency plans” in relation to specific well sites. One request asked for emergency plans generated by an elementary school in relation to a well site within approximately a half-mile.

Of these nine requests, three were fulfilled with returned emergency plans. Of the remaining six requests, five were not fulfilled because no emergency plan existed on record in the municipality. Initially, the request for the elementary school emergency plan was unable to be met by the municipal open records officer because no plan existed. Two months after that request, an unsolicited response from the same individual was received stating that the now-existent plan could not be shared because of security issues. A final question posed to the open records officer asked what concerned parents might be able to do to prepare themselves for emergency situations. This question, too, was deemed unanswerable due to security reasons. Another unmet municipal request was redirected to a county emergency planner who stated that the company generated plan was not theirs to distribute. Of the three emergency plans received, only one made any specific mention of residents living within close proximity; this response merely stated the number of nearby houses. Excluding GPS coordinates, no plan addressed any other infrastructure specific to the surrounding area, indicating a broad generality to their application.

The fact that six out of nine queried communities in PA were unable or unwilling to provide emergency response plans is highly concerning. These findings, when considered in the broader national context, indicate a significant chance that UNGD specific emergency planning and necessary communication with the public is deficient, particularly on the municipal level.

What Communities Need

Lack of specificity, inter-agency communication, and transparency indicate that the potential of EPCRA to benefit citizens has been largely untapped during the Marcellus Shale boom relative to emergency planning. Residents living within close proximity to UNGD should not only be apprised of emergency risk and strategy before an emergency arises, they should have a clearly accessible venue through which to voice concerns, needs, and recommendations. Furthermore, residents have valid reason to demand greater public oversight of current emergency planning efforts when the overwhelming majority of publicly available emergency plans fail to provide any information useful to a layperson.

Currently, there are communities in which the questionable practice of locating UNGD within a half-mile of elementary schools and other sensitive areas continues. In such areas, every effort must be made to develop, institute, and practice emergency plans prioritizing the concerns, safety, and coordination of local residents. Recommendations for improved transparency include:

  1. Make publicly available site-specific plans,
  2. Hold regular public meetings, and
  3. Prioritize communication between emergency responders and residents during emergency events

We encourage residents who are concerned about what their community is doing for UNGD-specific emergency planning to contact their local emergency responders and attend Local Emergency Planning Committee meetings in their county to advocate for such measures.

About EHP

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit environmental health organization created to assist and support Washington County residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities. Their Mission is to respond to individuals’ and communities’ need for access to accurate, timely and trusted public health information and health services associated with natural gas extraction.

Nearly 2 Million Pennsylvanians Live Within a Kilometer of Oil & Gas Wells

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

In October 2014, the FracTracker Alliance performed an analysis showing an estimated 1.2 million people lived within a half mile of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We have now updated the analysis, but this time, the unit of measure is one kilometer (0.62 miles).

PA Population Within 1km of Active Oil and Gas Wells


This map shows the estimated population within one kilometer of active oil and gas wells in PA – a total of nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians. To access the full set of tools and details about how the map was made, click here for the full screen version of the map.

Methods

To get as complete a picture as possible of the oil and gas industry in PA, we queried the spud date report to show all wells that were listed as being spudded between January 1, 1800 and November 12, 2015. We used the former date because it appears to be a default for unknown spud dates, and the latter being the date that the data were downloaded for the analysis. Altogether, this yielded 203,887 oil and gas wells throughout the state, but 74,900 (37%) of these lacked location coordinates. All of those missing latitude and longitude data were classified as conventional wells, and many of them were fairly old. We then filtered out wells that were reported as not being drilled, as well as those that were permanently plugged, either by the operator, or by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). The resulting set, which we refer to as “active” oil and gas wells, included 106,970 wells, of which 9,042 (8%) are defined as unconventional wells by the state.

To obtain an estimated population, we used the Census Tract level of detail, using official 2010 population figures. We calculated the area within 1 kilometer of active wells in three categories – conventional, unconventional, and all oil and gas wells. The population was then estimated by comparing the area inside the 1 km zone to the entire Census Tract, multiplying that ratio to the population of that tract, and repeating the process for each of the three datasets.

This area calculation was performed in Albers Equal Area projection optimized for the Great Lakes Basin area.  Every method of flattening an area of a globe on the map will lead to some type of distortion, but this projection prioritizes area over other factors, and is therefore appropriate for this type of analysis.

Results

An additional year of drilling activity, a more comprehensive date range, and the slight increase of the radius distance has had a significant effect on the estimated population near wells. The 2014 analysis yielded an estimated 1,264,576 within a half-mile of wells, while the current analysis has the figure at 1,965,837, an increase of 55%. Below is a table showing differences between the two analyses:

PA_PopWells_2015

This chart shows summaries of the current analysis of population within 1 km of wells in PA and an October 2014 version, showing population within a half-mile of wells.

One thing you will notice in this figure is that simply adding up the number of people who live in areas near unconventional and conventional drilling will not get you to the 1,965,837 figure we’ve presented. This is because some people live within the specified distance of both types of wells.

Additionally, it is impossible to say how many people live near the oil and gas wells that lack location data, as we obviously can’t map these wells. The majority of these wells may be in the areas that are already represented in the buffer zones, or they may extend that distance significantly.

Pipelines vs Oil Trains

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.

In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.

Let’s start with trains.

Benefits

Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.

In 2008, U.S. freight trains were delivering somewhere from 9-10,000 carloads of crude oil. In 2013, they delivered roughly 435,560 carloads of crude oil, showing a 20-fold increase in crude oil shipments.

Risks

Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.

Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.

train_incidents_english

Learn more about this trend and the increasing risk of exploding oil trains in a post by Randy Sargent of CMU.

Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.

Regulations

When it comes to train safety and regulations, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is in charge. Some of the current efforts to increase the safety of oil trains include safer tank car design, adding breaking power, reducing the train speed limits through urban areas and increasing crew size. One of the most important improvements, however, includes an increase in oil spill response, which is managed through the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Contingency Plan.

Now, let’s talk pipelines.

As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:


The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.

The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.

Risks

The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.

According to the final SEIS:

The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.

Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.

In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.

Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.

Benefits

Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1

Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:

  • Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
  • Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
  • Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
  • Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability

Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:

Moving Forward

All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.

For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).

As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.

Footnote

1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.

CA Crude Oil by Rail Shipments and Railway Accidents

CA Crude Oil by Rail Shipments and Railway Accidents

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Incidents in California involving oil-by-rail cars increased from 3 in 2011 to 25 in 2013. There were 24 incidents within the first 6 months of 2014, and oil spills from rail cars increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013.1 With such an increase in oil train incidents, we have to ask what the state is doing to protect public safety.

CA Crude Oil by Rail – The Status Quo

California is currently far behind states like New Hampshire and Minnesota that have taken more control over in-state hazards, and have passed laws aimed at forcing rail and pipeline companies to abide by more rigorous emergency response measures instead of relying on the federal government and undertaking state-level spill response plans. These state movements are in response to the existing federal oversight, which critics cite as inadequate.2

State environmental health officials have acknowledged the dangers of a derailment, but have downplayed the risk – comparing the hazard of an incident to be similar to ethanol or gasoline, based on volatility. They do not believe oil train derailments are as hazardous as other materials transported by rail such as chlorine or ammonia. The bigger concern, though, is the huge volume of Bakken crude oil that is being shipped by rail. A recent report by the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working group acknowledged this and identified key vulnerabilities along CA rail lines; Destinations of the crude trains in CA are the Bay Area via the Feather River or Donner Pass, Bakersfield via the Tehachapi Pass, and Los Angeles via the same route. These routes pass through the state’s most densely populated areas, as well as through some of the state’s most sensitive ecological areas, and each route has at least one high hazard area for derailments. Other issues identified include the impact of earthquakes on trains and rail lines and a shortage of emergency response capacity.

At-Risk Populations

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council used census data to identify at risk-populations for communities living near the rail lines that can be used for transporting shipments. The analysis identified a total of nearly four million people in the Bay Area and the Central Valley alone that live within 1 mile (the U.S. DOT isolation zone for a crude tanker fire) of a crude shipment rail line. The authors go on to provide the following recommendations to prevent crude oil train accidents:

  1. Remove Defective, Dangerous Tankers from Crude by Rail Service
  2. Impose Safer Speed Limits
  3. Reroute Around Sensitive Areas
  4. Provide Emergency Responder Resources
  5. Make Additional operational Safety and Oversight Improvements
  6. Exercise Local Government Powers4

Crude Oil Shipment Trends

Support of these recommendations is most important as more crude shipments in CA are on the horizon. A recent permit application by the Phillips 66 oil company included a proposal to use Amtrak passenger lines to transport Bakken crude through the San Francisco Bay Area. A review of the proposal by Hinman Consulting Engineers found that over the next 30 years, there is an approximate 28% risk of derailment in the heavily populated stretches of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Santa Clara, San Jose and others. This estimate is assuming there is no increase in shipping volumes. The damage of an accident was estimated by the researchers, and the analysis showed that approximately 47,000 households and $22 billion in improved property value lay within the projected blast zone, 1000 feet from the railway. A projection of the damage from a single accident estimated that an average of 117 households along with $244 million in property value could be destroyed. Hinman also stated that “this figure does not include loss of revenue, environmental cleanup costs, loss of human life, or other societal costs.”5 A proposal by Valero Refining Co. plans to ship 100 crude oil tank cars a day through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to Benicia.

Responses by CA Regulators and Railroads

To plan for this increase in rail traffic, Sacramento passed a shipping charge to prevent and manage spills that will result in $11 million in 2015. Another bill has been introduced to impose a second shipping fee on oil companies to train and equip first responders to deal with major spills and fires on railroad lines. An additional bill was also authored requiring rail carriers to communicate more closely with state emergency officials about crude oil rail movements.6

The map below shows where spills and train accidents have occurred in CA since 2011. When zoomed out the map shows areas with higher incidence rates of accidents, but when zoomed to a higher resolution the map differentiates the accidents by year.7

CA Crude Oil by Rail and Railroad Accidents

View Full Screen

In the map above, a hot spot analysis shows the frequency of railroad accidents, such as derailments. Areas with the highest incidence rates are shown in yellow. The actual locations and descriptions with dates of these accidents can be seen by zooming in using the plus (+) button in the top left corner of the map, and clicking on a diamond symbol. Shown in red and green are the BNSF and other railroad lines used for the transportation of crude by rail.

BNSF Route

Figure taken from BNSF’s U.S. DOT disclosure to the state of California for emergency preparedness.9

From what little data has been released, it is clear that BNSF railway intends to ship two Bakken crude trains per week carrying more than one million gallons of crude through the CA counties of Butte, Contra Costa, Lassen, Modoc, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yuba.8 The same information from Union Pacific Railroad has not been made public by the state of CA. The route shown in the figure to the right has been mapped in the FracTracker Alliance’s California Crude Shipment Routes and Railroad Accidents map above. From the map, you can see that there have been numerous accidents already on this BNSF rail line, particularly near Stockton and in the heavily populated North Bay Area.

References

  1. California Office of Emergency Services. 5/6/14. Historical HazMat Spill Notifications. Accessed 3/8/15.
  2. Douglas E. 6/16/14. 2 States Beef Up Oil-by-Rail and Pipeline Safety After String of Accidents. Inside Climate News. Accessed 3/9/15.
  3. Interagency Rail Safety Working Group. 6/10/14. Oil by Rail Safety in California. California Office of Emergency Services.
  4. Bailey D. 6/2014. It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed 3/10/15.
  5. Reis E & Coughlin A. 6/6/2014. New Proposed Oil Transportation Calls for Rational, Risk-Based Mitigation Approach. Hinman Consulting Engineers. Accessed 3/11/15
  6. Bizjak T. 6/16/14. California to impose fee on crude oil rail shipments; funds to be used for spill prevention, cleanup. The Sacramento Bee. Accessed 3/10/15.
  7. U.S. DOT. 5/7/2014. Emergency Order. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067. Accessed 3/10/15.
  8. California Public Utilities Commission. 2015. Railroad Safety and Operations. Accessed 3/8/15.
  9. U.S. DOT. 9/30/14. Re: U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Order Docket Number DOT-OST-2014-0067 (Issued May 7, 2014). Accessed 3/10/15.

What can violations data tell us?

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Education, Communications, & Partnerships

The rate of violations by fracking companies has been of significant interest to many groups including our own. But why? What can violations data tell us about oil and gas safety that a news article about a particular incident cannot?

When companies do not follow regulatory standards and protocols – and either self report the issue or are caught – they may be issued a citation of some sort by the state regulatory agency where the violation occurred. While data of this kind is not always readily available, we can gain key insights into the environment of a particular company and the related state agency by reviewing these violations more closely.

The Stories Behind the Data

Violation trends can be indicators of environmental and public health risks, by looking into spills or illegal air emissions. The degree of transparency both within the oil and gas industry, as well as in the state regulatory agency, can be gleaned based on the quality and quantity of data available about company violations. And of course, the degree to which a company complies with our state and federal laws says a lot about their corporate environment and safety protocols.

In Pennsylvania, for example, we have seen a decline in violations per well over time (Figure 1, below). At first glance, this trend appears to be a step in the right direction. There could be several reasons behind this change, however, including but not limited to:

  • Improved compliance among operators – Great!
  • Decreased regulatory inspections – Not so great
  • Decreased regulatory reporting of violations during those inspections – Not so great
  • Changes in what qualifies as a “violation” or how violations data is collected/shared
  • Less self reporting by the companies when something goes wrong – Not so great
  • Larger, more established operators with better safety protocols have bought out smaller, resource-limited companies
  • Improved control technologies or infrastructure (throughputs) – Great!
  • More public pressure to comply with regulations – Great!
VpW PA Over Time

Figure 1. Violations per well drilled in PA 2005-2014. Data source

Two Recent Violations Data Reports

With the insight that can be acquired by analyzing violations (and other types of data), it is not uncommon to see an increase in the organizations and researchers digging into the data.

On January 27th, for example, Environment America released a report detailing the top oil and gas violators in the United States. Among their many findings…

Houston-based Cabot Oil, a prime Halliburton contractor, committed the most total violations with 265 across the study period. Chesapeake Energy was close behind. Pittsburgh-based Atlas was guilty of the most breaches for every well drilled, while Mieka, part of Dallas-based Vadda Energy, was responsible for the most infractions per well operated. Learn more

A report that we wrote last year finally made its way through peer review and was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A on Tuesday last week1. We did not focus specifically on the operators committing violations like Environment America did, but on the state of the data that is or should be available to the public about these operations from state regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, we found that many states often do not release violations data – especially not in a publicly accessible manner. Learn more about this study through an article I wrote for the Sunlight Foundation’s blog or check out the abstract.

A third violations report is due out soon, so keep your eyes peeled! UPDATE: As of April 2, 2015 – The Natural Resources Defense Council report is available.

Endnotes

1. The other publications in the special issue, Facing the Challenges – Research on Shale Gas Extraction, are listed below:

Foreword
John F. Stolz Professor, Duquesne University
Pages: 433-433

Current perspectives on unconventional shale gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin
David J. Lampe & John F. Stolz
Pages: 434-446

Long-term impacts of unconventional drilling operations on human and animal health
Michelle Bamberger & Robert E. Oswald
Pages: 447-459

Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development: A public health demonstration of periodic high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air
David R. Brown, Celia Lewis & Beth I. Weinberger
Pages: 460-472

Reported health conditions in animals residing near natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania
I. B. Slizovskiy, L. A. Conti, S. J. Trufan, J. S. Reif, V. T. Lamers, M. H. Stowe, J. Dziura & P. M. Rabinowitz
Pages: 473-481

Marcellus and mercury: Assessing potential impacts of unconventional natural gas extraction on aquatic ecosystems in northwestern Pennsylvania
Christopher J. Grant, Alexander B. Weimer, Nicole K. Marks, Elliott S. Perow, Jacob M. Oster, Kristen M. Brubaker, Ryan V. Trexler, Caroline M. Solomon, & Regina Lamendella
Pages: 482-500

Data inconsistencies from states with unconventional oil and gas activity
Samantha Malone, Matthew Kelso, Ted Auch, Karen Edelstein, Kyle Ferrar, & Kirk Jalbert
Pages: 501-510

Scintillation gamma spectrometer for analysis of hydraulic fracturing waste products
Leong Ying, Frank O’Connor, & John F. Stolz
Pages: 511-515

Well water contamination in a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania near unconventional shale gas extraction
Shyama K. Alawattegama, Tetiana Kondratyuk, Renee Krynock, Matthew Bricker, Jennifer K. Rutter, Daniel J. Bain, & John F. Stolz
Pages: 516-528

Danger Around the Bend

The Threat of Oil Trains in Pennsylvania

A PennEnvironment Report – Read Full Report (PDF)

On the heels of the West Virginia oil train explosion, this new study and interactive map show populations living in the evacuation zone of a potential oil train crash.

PA Oil Train Routes Map


This dynamic map shows the population estimates in Pennsylvania that are within a half-mile of train tracks – the recommended evacuation distance in the event of a crude oil rail car explosion. Zoom in for further detail or view fullscreen.

Danger Around the Bend Summary

The increasingly common practice of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil by rail from North Dakota to points across the nation—including Pennsylvania—poses a significant risk to the health, well-being, and safety of our communities.

This risk is due to a confluence of dangerous factors including, but not limited to:

  1. Bakken Formation crude oil is far more volatile and combustible than typical crude, making it an incredibly dangerous commodity to transport, especially over the nation’s antiquated rail lines.
  2. The routes for these trains often travel through highly populated cities, counties and neighborhoods — as well as near major drinking water sources.
  3. Bakken Formation crude is often shipped in massive amounts — often more than 100 cars, or over 3 million gallons per train.
  4. The nation’s existing laws to protect and inform the public, first responders, and decision makers are woefully inadequate to avert derailments and worst-case accidents from occurring.
Lac-Mégantic derailment. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment

Lac-Mégantic derailment, July 2013. Source

In the past few years, production of Bakken crude oil has dramatically increased, resulting in greater quantities of this dangerous fuel being transported through our communities and across the nation every day. This increase has led to more derailments, accidents, and disasters involving oil trains and putting local com- munities at risk. In the past 2 years, there have been major disasters in Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia; Pickens County, Alabama; and most recently, Mount Carbon, West Virginia. The worst of these was the town of Lac-Mégantic, in Canada’s Quebec Province. This catastrophic oil train accident took place on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people and leveling half the town.

Oil train accidents have not just taken place in other states, they have also happened closer to home. Pennsylvania has had three near misses in the last two years alone — one near Pittsburgh and two in Philadelphia. In all three cases, trains carrying this highly volatile Bakken crude derailed in densely populated areas, and in the derailment outside of Pittsburgh, 10,000 gallons of crude oil spilled. Fortunately these oil train accidents did not lead to explosions or fires.

All of these incidents point to one fact: that unless we take action to curb the growing threat of oil trains, the next time a derailment occurs an unsuspecting community may not be so lucky.

Bakken oil train routes often travel through high-density cities and neighborhoods, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accident for Pennsylvania’s residents. Reviewing GIS data and statewide rail routes from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, research by FracTracker and PennEnvironment show that millions of Pennsylvanians live within the potential evacuation zone (typically a half-mile radius around the train explosion ). Our findings include:

  • Over 3.9 million Pennsylvania residents live within a possible evacuation zone for an oil train accident.
  • These trains travel near homes, schools, and day cares, putting Pennsylvania’s youngest residents at risk. All told, more than 860,000 Pennsylvania children under the age of 18 live within the 1⁄2 mile potential evacuation zone for an oil train accident.
  • Philadelphia County has the highest at-risk population — Almost 710,000 people live within the half-mile evacuation zone. These areas include neighborhoods from the suburbs to Center City.
  • 16 of the 25 zip codes with the most people at risk — the top percentile in the state — are located in the city of Philadelphia.
  • The top five Pennsylvania cities with the most residents at risk are:
    • Philadelphia (709869, residents),
    • Pittsburgh (183,456 residents),
    • Reading (70,012 residents),
    • Scranton (61,004 residents), and
    • Erie (over 51,058 residents).

 

Bakken Crude Oil

How we get it and why we ship it

Bakken crude oil comes from drilling in the Bakken Formation, located in North Dakota. It contains deposits of both oil and natural gas, which can be accessed by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Until recent technological developments, the oil contained in the formation was too difficult to access to yield large production. But advances in this extraction technology since 2007 have transformed the area into a major oil producer — North Dakota now ranks second in the U.S. for oil production. The vast expansion of wells over the last 4 years (from 470 wells to over 3,300 today) means that there is more oil to transport to the market, both domestically and abroad. This increase is especially concerning considering that the U.S. Department of Transportation stated in early 2014 that Bakken crude oil may be more flammable than traditional crude, therefore making it more dangerous to transport by rail.

For More Information

Conventional and unconventional wells in PA

Over 1.2 Million Pennsylvanians Within 1/2 Mile of a Well

Aging well in McKean County, PA. Source: saveourstreamspa.org

One of the potentially troubling aspects of oil and gas development is that there are usually people who live in the vicinity of the wells. Pennsylvania now has over 8,000 active unconventional wells; there are any number of issues that can occur with these modern, industrial-scale sites, including road degradation, contaminated water, and health impacts, among others. In addition, there are over 93,000 of the smaller, conventional wells in operation throughout the Commonwealth. While these garner far less attention than their unconventional counterparts, they are also prone to producing similar impacts, not to mention that since many of them are older wells, they not only have potentially been subject to deterioration and occasional neglect, but were constructed during a period with less stringent requirements than are currently expected.

Petroleum engineers are now capable of drilling horizontally for tens of thousands of feet. For the most part, however, this technology is employed to maximize production, rather than to ameliorate impacts on people who live near the product. But who are these people? To help to answer this question, the FracTracker Alliance calculated the number of people living in a half-mile radius around active wells in the state.

More than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians live within the impact area.

Of the 93,754 wells that have been drilled in the state since 1950 that have not yet been plugged, the Pennsylvania DEP only has location data for 79,118 of them. All but one of the 14,636 missing locations are for wells that are categorized as Conventional. While one must presume that there is some overlap in coverage within the half-mile zone, the extent of this region – and therefore the population that lives within it – cannot be determined.


Fig. 1. PA Populations Near Oil and Gas Wells. Click here to access written description and additional map tools.

To maximize the reliability of our calculations, this map was created using a custom Albers equal-area projection centered on Pennsylvania. A half-mile buffer around each well type was created, and the resulting layer was clipped to Census tract data. The ratio of the smaller clipped area to the full Census tract area was calculated, and that ratio was then multiplied by the population totals from the 2010 Census to obtain our population estimates of the half-mile zone. The area in the study area is larger than six states, while the calculated population is larger than that of eight states.

Of the 79,118 active oil and gas wells in PA for which location data are available, we determined the area and estimated the population within a half mile radius. Note that some regions are with a half-mile of both conventional and unconventional wells.

Fig. 2. Number of people in PA near oil and gas wells (79,118 active wells for which location data are available). Note that some regions are with a half-mile of both conventional and unconventional wells.

The county most impacted, in terms of area, for unconventional wells is Bradford, with 353 square miles (See Figure 2). Washington County had the most people living in the zone, however, with 20,566. For conventional wells, the drilling landscape is the largest in Indiana County, affecting 761 square miles, while Erie County has the most people in the half-mile zone, with 212,900. When considering all wells together, the numbers are almost identical to conventional wells. Indiana County leads with 762 square miles, while the drill zone in Erie County represents 211,903 people, or 76% of the county’s population in 2010.

Lac Mégantic Derailment, Québec in July 2013. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment

Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Since 2011, North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Shale Play has made its way to refineries on the east coast via freight trains. This means of oil transportation is becoming increasingly common, as plans for pipeline development have been falling short, but demand for more energy development continues to climb (see New York Times, April 12 , 2014). In addition to the Bakken crude, there are also currently proposals under consideration to ship crude by rail  from Alberta’s tar sands region, along these same routes through New York State.

Alarm about the danger of these “bomb trains” came sharply into public focus after the disaster in Lac Mégantic, Québec in July 2013 when a train carrying 72 carloads of the highly volatile Bakken oil derailed, setting off a massive series of explosions that leveled several blocks of the small town, killing 47 people (photo above). The crude from the Bakken is considerably lighter than that of other oil and gas deposits, making it more volatile than the crude that has been traditionally transported by rail.

Quantifying the Risk

As estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board, with deliveries at about 400,000 barrels a day headed to the Atlantic coast, about a 20-25% of this volume passes through the Port of Albany, NY. There were recent approvals for 3 billion gallons to be processed through Albany. The remainder of the crude is delivered to other ports in the US and Canada. Any oil travelling by rail through the Port of Albany would also pass through significant population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. Binghamton, NY is also bisected by commercial rail lines.

In the past year, the New York Times, as well as other media, have reported on the threat of disasters similar to what occurred in Québec last summer, as the freight cars pass through Albany. Not only is the oil itself volatile, safety oversight is extremely spotty. According to The Innovation Trail, “… a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines 1-percent of the countries rail road infrastructure.”

RiverKeeper, in their recent report on the topic, notes:

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed — and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

The Guardian has reported that a legacy of poor regulation and safety failures led to the disaster in Québec, leading to bankruptcy of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (MMA), and numerous class action suits. Records show that MMA was particularly lax in maintaining their rail cars and providing training for their employees. Meanwhile,  in the US, critics of rail transport of volatile crude oil point to inadequate monitoring systems, training, and, importantly, prepared and available emergency response teams that would be able to respond to explosions or disasters anywhere along the route. The size of a explosion that could occur would easily overwhelm volunteer fire and EMT services in many small towns.

These same trains pass through other major cities in Western and Central New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Not only are the railroads in proximity to significant population centers, they are also close to scores of K-12 schools, endangering the wellbeing of thousands of children (Table 1). In fact, across New York State, 495 K-12 public schools, or 12% of the total in the state, are within a half-mile of major railways–the standard evacuation distance for accidents involving railcars filled with flammable liquids and gases, as recommended by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) in their Emergency Response Guidebook. The US DOT also recommends an isolation zone of 1600 meters (1.0 miles) around any railcars filled with those materials if they are on fire.

Map of NYS Rail Lines and K-12 Schools


Click on this interactive map or pan through the state to explore regions outside of Rochester, NY. For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Buffalo Rail Lines and Proximity to Schools

Fig. 1. Buffalo Rail Lines & Proximity to Schools

For example, on their way through the City of Buffalo crude-carrying freight trains pass within a half-mile of residences of more than 86,000 people, as well as 20 public schools and 4 private schools, and within a half-mile of homes of nearly 60,000 people, 15 public schools, and 5 private schools, on the way through Rochester. See Figures 1-5.

Our work stands in support of and extends the excellent analyses already focusing on the Port of Albany done this past summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Healthy Schools Network. (See their report, which looked at the north-south rail corridor in New York State that passes along the Hudson River, within close proximity to 75 K-12 schools).

Table 1. Summary of population statistics in proximity to railways for five New York State cities

City Population
(2010 US Census)

Within ½ Mile of  Freight Rail Way

% Population # K-12 public schools in city # K-12 private schools in city
Buffalo 261,310 33% 28 8
Rochester 214,989 27.4% 15 5
Syracuse 145,168 16% 4 1
Utica 62,230 28.5% 2 0
Binghamton 47,376 63.5% 6 0

Figures 2-5. Proximity maps for Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton, NY

Rochester, NY

Rochester, NY

Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

Utica, NY

Utica, NY

Binghamton, NY

Binghamton, NY

Learn more about Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

Class II Oil and Gas Wastewater Injection and Seismic Hazards in CA

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance Shake Ground Cover

In collaboration with the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and Clean Water Action, The FracTracker Alliance has completed a proximity analysis of the locations of California’s Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells to “recently” active fault zones in California. The results of the analysis can be found in the On Shaky Ground report, available for download at www.ShakyGround.org.1

Production of oil and natural gas results in a large and growing waste stream. Using current projections for oil development, the report projects a potential 9 trillion gallons of wastewater over the lifetime of the Monterey shale. In California the majority of wastewater is injected deep underground for disposal in wells deemed Class II wastewater injection.  The connection between seismic activity and underground injections of fluid has been well established, but with the current surge of shale resource development the occurrence of earthquakes in typically seismically inactive regions has increased, including a recent event in Ohio covered by the LA Times.   While both hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection wells have been linked to the induction of seismic activity, the impacts of underground injection wells used for disposal are better documented and linked to larger magnitude earthquakes.

Therefore, while hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has also been documented to induce seismic activity, the focus of this report is underground injection of waste fluids.

Active CA Faults

A spatial overview of the wastewater injection activity in California and recently active faults can be viewed in Figure 1, below.


Figure 1. California’s Faults and Wastewater Injection Wells. With this and all maps on this page, click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map to view it fullscreen and to see the legend and more details.

The focus of the On Shaky Ground report outlines the relationship between does a thorough job reviewing the literature that shows how the underground injection of fluids induces seismic activity.  The proximity analysis of wastewater injection wells, conducted by The FracTracker Alliance, provides insight into the spatial distribution of the injection wells.  In addition, the report M7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault could cause 1,800 fatalities and nearly $213 billion in economic damages.2  To complement the report and provide further information on the potential impacts of earthquakes in California, FracTracker created the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Shaking Assessments

Figure 2 presents shaking amplification and shaking hazards assessments. The dataset is generated from seismic evaluations.  When there is an earthquake, the ground will amplify the seismic activity in certain ways.  The amount of amplification is typically dependent on distance to the earthquake event and the material that comprises the Earth’s crust.  Softer materials, such as areas of San Francisco built on landfills, will typically shake more than areas comprised of bedrock at the surface.  The type of shaking, whether it is low frequency or high frequency will also present varying hazards for different types of structures.  Low frequency shaking is more hazardous to larger buildings and infrastructure, whereas high frequency events can be more damaging to smaller structure such as single family houses.  Various assessments have been conducted throughout the state, the majority by the California Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey.


Figure 2. California Earthquake Shaking Amplification and Class II Injection Wells

Landslide Hazards

Below, Figure 3. Southern California Landslide and Hazard Zones expands upon the map included in the On Shaky Ground report; during an earthquake liquefaction of soil and landslides represent some of the greatest hazards.  Liquefaction refers to the solid earth becoming “liquid-like”, whereas water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid, often in an earthquake. By undermining the foundations of infrastructure and buildings, liquefaction can cause serious damage. The highest hazard areas shown by the liquefaction hazard maps are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor. Such areas along the Bay margins are found in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Island, as well as other places around San Francisco Bay. Other potentially hazardous areas include those along some of the larger streams, which produce the loose young soils that are particularly susceptible to liquefaction.  Liquefaction risks have been estimated by USGS and CGS specifically for the East Bay, multiple fault-slip scenarios for Santa Clara and for all the Bay Area in separate assessments.  There are not regional liquefaction risk estimate maps available outside of the bay area, although the CGS has identified regions of liquefaction and landslide hazards zones for the metropolitan areas surrounding the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  These maps outline the areas where liquefaction and landslides have occurred in the past and can be expected given a standard set of conservative assumptions, therefore there exist certain zoning codes and building requirements for infrastructure.


Figure 3. California Liquefaction/Landslide Hazards and Class II Injection Wells

Press Contacts

For more information about this report, please reach out to one of the following media contacts:

Alan Septoff
Earthworks
(202) 887-1872 x105
aseptoff@earthworksaction.org
Patrick Sullivan
Center for Biological Diversity
(415) 632-5316
psullivan@biologicaldiversity.org
Andrew Grinberg
Clean Water Action
(415) 369-9172
agrinberg@cleanwater.org

References

  1. Arbelaez, J., Wolf, S., Grinberg, A. 2014. On Shaky Ground. Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action. Available at ShakyGround.org
  2. Jones, L.M. et al. 2008. The Shakeout Scenario. USGS Open File Report 2008-1150. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.