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Bradford County Blowout Frustrates Officials

Towanda Creek, Bradford County, PA
On April 19, a well being hydraulically fractured by Chesapeake Energy suffered a blowout, or a loss of control of the wellhead, releasing thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid onto the ground and into nearby Towanda Creek. Actions by officials at the county, state, and federal levels show some frustration with the drilling operator over this incident.

Chairman of the Bradford County Commissioners Mark W. Smith wrote an open letter to Governor Tom Corbett, in which he addresses the perfunctory well permitting process, well water spoilage and declining property values. He also points out the strains that the industry places on the local communities:
I continue to see our county, townships, and boroughs struggle with complex issues of development with no financial or logistical support from the Commonwealth. Emergency responders, volunteers, state and local police and dispatchers are working at a break neck pace to respond to immense traffic accident increases, well site accidents, and other related issues.
At the state level, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has already issued violations for the incident, as well as demanding explanations of certain aspects of the massive leak and spill. Chief among those is why Chesapeake elected to bring in well control specialists Boots and Coots, which took 12 hours to arrive on the scene, when there were other well control specialists available much closer. (For some dramatic well disaster footage, see Boots and Coots’ promotional video.)
The US Environmental Protection Agency is also getting involved, demanding complete information about the incident in this open letter to Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon. EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin explains the twofold nature of request:
We want a complete accounting of operations at the site to determine our next steps in this incident and to help prevent future releases of this kind.
Chesapeake Energy officials are also concerned, suspending all post-drilling activities in the Marcellus, including hydraulic fracturing, until the nature of the spill is fully undestood. The linked article gives no indication of a time frame for that review.
In 2010, Bradford County had 280 Marcellus Shale violations issued, with 386 Marcellus wells drilled in the same period. That works out to an average of three violations issued for every four wells drilled in the county.
Oil and gas violations in Bradford County, PA in 2010. Please click the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

Gas Drilling Waste Pollution Permit Under Scrutiny

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 16, 2011

Gas Drilling Waste Pollution Permit Under Scrutiny
Bowing to industry pressure, state has bent the rules for wastewater treatment plant

HARRISBURG, PA – Environmental groups are challenging a new proposal to allow a gas drilling wastewater treatment plant operated by Shallenberger Construction, Inc. to dump 500,000 gallons of water polluted by toxic chemicals into the Monongahela River each day without adequate protections for drinking water.

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed comments (PDF) on behalf of Clean Water Action and 18 other organizations, disclosing that – for the second time in the short history of the treatment plant – the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) has made an exception to the rules for Shallenberger. The comments also highlight a host of other problems with the plant’s permit, which could result in the contamination of the Monongahela River, a drinking water source for 350,000 people.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a series of investigative articles on the environmental impacts of the gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania, highlighting the lax regulations governing the gas drilling industry. Yesterday federal lawmakers, including Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), introduced legislation aimed at protecting drinking water from gas drilling pollution.

“Pennsylvania is being held up nationwide as a poster child for gas development gone wrong. And this shoddy pollution permit certainly won’t do anything to change its reputation. Even as state officials try to appear as if they are being tough on polluters, they keep bending over backwards to accommodate an industry that is clearly uninterested in anything but short-term profits,” said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg. “It’s high time that state leaders recognized that the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Mon for their drinking water clearly comes first.”

The sole purpose of the Shallenberger plant (located in Masontown, PA, in the southwestern corner of the state) is to treat polluted water from industrial gas development in the Marcellus shale, including wastewater from the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing – in which drillers blast millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the earth to extract the gas. Clean Water Action has been in litigation (PDF) since 2009 over a prior secret agreement to allow the plant several years to discharge incompletely treated wastewater, in spite of legal requirements that new wastewater treatment plants be built with adequate controls right from the start.

“As we detail in our comments, DEP has twice told the public that Shallenberger’s permit will contain one set of limits, while the agency is planning to enforce completely different standards. DEP needs to come clean with its true intentions and protect our drinking water from dirty gas extraction wastes,” stated Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action.

DEP first issued an unlawfully lenient discharge permit to Shallenberger in September 2008. After pollution in the Monongahela River exceeded water quality standards, the State entered into negotiations with Shallenberger to amend the permit. DEP gave the company more than three years from the end of August 2009 to meet new limits, however, and even those were inadequate. The negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, and the deal was never subject to public notice or review. The new draft permit also is subject to toothless deadlines and other deficiencies.

Heather Panek, a Clean Water Action member living in nearby Monongahela, PA, stated, “As a life long resident of the Mon Valley, I can’t understand why the state would allow Shallenberger to start polluting our drinking water. This plant has been operating successfully for a about a year without discharging a drop. Not only could there be health problems, if DEP allows untreated pollution into the river, but our businesses could be hurt as well. What person or business is going to want to move into a community without access to clean water?”

For a copy of the comments filed, click here (PDF).

CONTACT:
Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice, (212) 791-1881, ext. 227
Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235
Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action, (412) 592-1283, cell
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Clean Water Action, with over 150,000 members in Pennsylvania, has been empowering people for more than 37 years to take action to protect America’s waters, the health of our families and to make democracy work.

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.

Groups Announce Legal Action to Stop Sewage Plants from Dumping Gas Drilling Wastewater in PA Rivers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Groups Announce Legal Action to Stop Sewage Plants from
Dumping Gas Drilling Wastewater in Pennsylvania Rivers

— McKeesport and Franklin Twp. plants targeted —

(Pittsburgh) – Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper served legal noticestoday on two sewer authorities that have been discharging Marcellus Shale gas drillingwastewater into the Monongahela River watershed south of Pittsburgh. The noticesdetail violations of the federal Clean Water Act by the facilities, primarily for dischargingwastewater without a permit. Both EPA and the Pennsylvania DEP were notified as wellof the legal action. This is the first time a legal action has been filed to stop the currentdischarge of Marcellus drilling wastewater.

The two sewer authorities targeted are the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport inAllegheny County and the Franklin Township Sewer Authority, located in Greene County.McKeesport discharges up to 100,000 gallons per day of Marcellus drilling wastewater intothe Monongahela River. Franklin Twp. discharges up to 50,000 gallons per day into TenMile Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River. The Monongahela supplies drinkingwater for nearly a half million people, including a portion of the City of Pittsburgh.

“We cannot wait any longer to rely on the state and EPA to act,” stated Myron Arnowitt,PA State Director for Clean Water Action. “These sewage plants have been illegallydischarging gas drilling wastewater into our rivers since 2008 without a permit as requiredby the Clean Water Act. They should immediately stop accepting gas drilling wastewaterand if they want to accept it, they should apply for a permit to do so,” Arnowitt stated.

“Our rivers have made a miraculous recovery over the past few decades, thanks – in largepart – to laws that protect the public’s right to clean rivers and safe drinking water. Theselaws are public health laws and their strict enforcement has a direct, positive effect on thehealth of our rivers, our communities, and our citizens,” stated Ned Mulcahy, ExecutiveDirector for Three Rivers Waterkeeper. “We demand that these facilities stop acceptingtruck after truck of this wastewater and that the DEP and EPA take all necessary actionsto ensure that our rivers, our drinking water, and our communities are protected from thehealth hazards posed by improper treatment and illegal discharges,” Mulcahy stated.

Pennsylvania DEP has previously issued consent orders with both facilities that purportto allow the sewage plants to accept and discharge Marcellus wastewater. Arnowittstated, “DEP’s consent orders are private deals that are negotiated without public input.

The public is not notified and there are no public hearings as there would be if they appliedfor a Clean Water Act permit to discharge appropriately treated Marcellus wastewater. Ifthis wastewater is as safe as the gas industry says it is, lets have a public process so wecan see what the impact really is,” stated Arnowitt.

Water samples recently taken by University of Pittsburgh researchers downstream ofarea wastewater plants have shown elevated levels of numerous contaminants found inMarcellus wastewater including: total dissolved solids, chlorides, bromides, barium, andstrontium.

Although DEP had previously issued in 2010 strict wastewater treatment standards formost oil and gas wastewater sources, the new rule grandfathered all existing plants thatare currently discharging Marcellus wastewater. No plants in Pennsylvania that arecurrently discharging Marcellus wastewater are capable of removing contaminants to thelevel required by the 2010 wastewater rule.

EPA Region III Administrator Shawn Garvin sent a letter this week to Acting DEPSecretary Krancer concerning Marcellus wastewater discharge permits. The letter readin part, “These permits do not now include critical provisions necessary for effectiveprocessing and treatment of wastewaters from drilling operations.”

The legal action that is being filed today is the first step in what is referred to as a citizensuit under the Clean Water Act. When government agencies fail to address violations ofthe Clean Water Act this federal law allows any citizen to sue for enforcement of the law.The filing today is the legally required “Notice of Intent” informing all parties of the Clean Water Act violations at issue.

The legal filing from Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper can bedownloaded here.

Clean Water Action has more than 120,000 members statewide in Pennsylvania and isthe nation’s largest grassroots group focused on water, energy and environmental health.Clean Water Action’s 1 million members, participate in Clean Water Action’s programs forclean, safe and affordable water, prevention of health-threatening pollution, and creation ofenvironmentally-safe jobs and businesses. Clean Water Action’s nonpartisan campaignsempower people to make democracy work.

The mission of Three Rivers Waterkeeper is to ensure that communities throughoutSouthwestern Pennsylvania have safe water to drink, clean rivers to enjoy, and themeans necessary to defend their right to both. To accomplish this mission, Three RiversWaterkeeper will engage in education and outreach, work with communities and theirleaders, partner with government actors and NGOs, patrol the rivers, monitor water quality,and hold polluters accountable under the law.

CONTACT:
Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action, 412-592-1283
Ned Mulcahy, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, 412-589-4720
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Updated Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Waste Information

Total Waste Produced by Marcellus Shale Well (small)Mixed total of waste produced by Marcellus Shale gas wells between July 1 and December 31, 2010. For more information on specific wells, click the blue “i” button, then click on one of the purple dots.

Self reported Marcellus Shale waste data for the period between July 1 and December 31, 2010 is now available on the DEP website and FracTracker’s DataTool in the following categories:

  • Basic Sediment (in barrels): Sludge that collects at the bottom of storage tanks and pits
  • Brine (in barrels): These are naturally occurring pockets of saltwater that are encountered in the drilling process.
  • Drill Cuttings (in tons): This is composed of the layers of earth that the drill passes through on the way to the target formation.
  • Drilling (in barrels): The main function of drilling fluid is to maintain the proper pressure in the well
  • Frac Fluid (in Barrels): This is what is injected into the well during the hydraulic fracturing process, much of which tends to flow back out.
  • Servicing Fluid (in Barrels): Waste produced by one of a variety of post-production services performed on a well.
  • Spent Lubricant (in Barrels): This lubricates the drill bit

I have also pivoted the data to establish how much waste is transported to the various disposal locations.


Locations accepting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale waste. Please click on the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

I have a few initial observations about the waste production data:

  • The totals for waste production in every category except Basic Sediment are higher for the six month period from than they were for the one year period ending on June 30, 2010. This increase almost certainly reflects better reporting rather than a dramatic increase in waste production in the last half of 2010.
  • There are some obvious inaccuracies in the map of the facilities receiving Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale waste. There is no reason that this waste would be shipped to Texas or Alabama, for example. Those locations are most likely corporate addresses of the waste facilities.
  • Despite the fact that companies are supposed to report both addresses and latitude and longitude of the receiving facilities, not all of the facilities receiving waste are on this map. The list of addresses appeared to be more complete, so that is what was used for mapping purposes. If you download the full dataset, addresses in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virinia, Maryland, and New Jersey are given as recipients of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale waste.

How is PA handling shale gas wastewater?

 

Jim Riggio, plant manager for the Beaver Falls Municipal
Authority, shows a sample of solid materials removed from
the Beaver River during treatment Dec. 15 at his plant.

On January 3rd, Associated Press writer, David Caruso, criticized the efforts underway in Pennsylvania to protect surface waters from shale gas drilling wastewater – especially because in most other states the primary means of disposal is deep well injection.

On January 4th, both the Marcellus Shale Coalition (the industry’s PR group) and DEP Secretary John Hanger defended the Commonwealth’s actions and current regulations.

What do you think?

Do you want to know where shale gas wastewater is permitted to be disposed of into surface waters near you? Below is a snapshot that I made in August 2010 using FracTracker’s DataTool of the facilities within PA that are permitted to receive shale gas drilling wastewater:


To learn more about a particular site, click on the inspect button in the gray toolbar – the “i” – and then click on a red diamond. A white box will pop up. Within that box, click on “view” to see who operates these facilities and how much wastewater per day they are permitted to receive. (“MGD” stands for Million Gallons Per Day. “GPD” means Gallons Per Day.)

And finally, here are two blog posts written by CHEC staff about the challenges facing our surface waters – and potentially our health – as a result of both fresh water withdrawals and wasterwater disposal: