Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Watchdogs of Toxic Waters

Stephanie Simmons, the Water Chair for the Sierra Club asked at our March meeting: Have you heard of the Marcellus Shale? If you haven’t, then you might have asked at one point…can we utilize the kind of drilling processes currently undertaken safely, without significant damage to the environment, communities, and water quality? Stephanie guided us through the lack of disclosure from companies concerning types of chemicals used in the process including the lack of legislative prowess to get in front of the process, instead of significantly behind it. Also DEP's role in regulating, taxing, and leaving one with a simple question: is that enough to protect the commonwealth and its people from a potentially devastating hazard? Has the true cost of operating unconventional horizontal well drilling been calculated? Everyone, even the oil and gas professionals agree, the answer is no. To the degree of liability and culpability there is a dividing line. Some companies have sold their land to sub-contractors because they now realize the risk may be too great to absorb for them, and probably, for us as well.

What follows is Jay Sweeney's enlightening story behind the Marcellus Shale. Jay is the Green party candidate running for the 111th District of the State of Pennsylvania.

In 2008, I was running for State Representative in the 111th District. I attended a League of Women Voters meeting. Everyone was asking, “Did you sign a lease yet?” It was then that I learned of the Marcellus Shale. The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary black shale. It is located beneath most of Pennsylvania with the exception of the southeastern part of the state. It is also found beneath parts of Ohio, West Virginia and New York. It is named the Marcellus due to it’s outcropping near the town of Marcellus, New York. In Pennsylvania, it is located between 5,000 and 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface several thousand feet below the fresh water aquifer, which is around 400 feet. Trapped between the shale is natural gas. The Marcellus also contains uranium, and the radioactive decay of the uranium-238 makes it a source of radioactive radon gas.

I then learned about the landsmen. They approached landholders to sign mineral leases with them. They were given sign on bonuses and the promise of future royalties. This all began quietly as early as 2005 with landsmen offering large landholders such as farmers $15.00 per acre. Today they are paying $6000.00 per acre. Dr. Terry Engelder, Professor of Geology at Penn State University was the co-author of a scientific paper on the economic and geologic opportunities of the Marcellus Shale formation. He estimates there is between 160 and 525 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus with about 50 tcu recoverable. This is enough to meet the nations needs for 2 years. Since then estimates have rapidly risen to a 14-year supply, 50 year supply and finally to 100 year supply.

Drilling in the Marcellus is considered unconventional and utilizes a procedure developed by Halliburton called hydrofracturing. As the name suggests, water mixed with sand and chemicals is forced through the shale under pressure to crush the shale and release the gas. Each fracking operation requires 1 to 3 million gallons of water per well. Wells can be fracked several times. While only 5% of the fracking fluid is composed of chemicals, 50,000 gallons of chemicals are used per million gallons of water. The fracking companies claim the formula for their fluids are proprietary. They do not want to release the information about the chemical content.

Before the hydrofracturing, a borehole is drilled. It goes through the aquifer and continues for at least a mile. When it approaches the shale it is curved to run horizontally through it. Then the borehole is cased with pipe. A second layer of pipe is inserted and the well is cased with concrete. A series of explosives are detonated in the area to be fracked, initiating the fissures needed to release the gas. Horizontal drilling allows drilling in several directions from one well and several wells can be drilled from one pad. The number one environmental problem associated with this drilling is the threat to our water, although there is also fragmentation of the land. Drilling pads of up to 5 acres are cleared for each operation. There is also the release of methane, the principal component of natural gas. As a greenhouse gas, Methane is 20 times more dangerous than Carbon Dioxide. Truck traffic, road damage and noise are just a few more of the environmental problems associated with natural gas drilling.

Getting back to water, millions of gallons of water are used in the hydrofracturing process. Roughly one half of the water remains in the ground and the rest returns to the surface. This water contains total dissolved solids that make it 5 times saltier than seawater. It contains the chemical additives, which have been found to include carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. It is also potentially radioactive. This water is now industrial waste and must be treated as such. However, there are few facilities available to handle this type of waste. The drilling pads contain pits where this water can be stored. It is subject to leaks, overflow from heavy rain or snowfall and exposes waterfowl and wildlife to these toxins. It is going to municipal wastewater treatment plants, which are not equipped to properly handle industrial waste. This water is being diluted with the treated water and dumped into our rivers and streams. This resulted in problems with total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River this summer. The Monongahela provides drinking water to many downstream communities.

In addition, this wastewater is dumped on roads for dust control and can be used in the winter to pretreat roads prior to snowfall. All of these activities were permitted by DEP even before it was gutted in the recent budget signed by Governor Rendell. DEP has not lived up to its mission, which reads as follows to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. We will work as partners with individuals, organizations, governments and businesses to prevent pollution and restore our natural resources.

DEP is understaffed, underfunded and cannot possibly monitor activity at the wells. The Oil and Gas industry expects to apply for 5200 permits in 2010; three times more than in 2009! DEP has raised the cost of a permit and these funds will be used to hire more employees. This means that the industry that is subject to DEP regulation and monitoring is now funding the agency. DEP does not plan to regulate the wastewater until treatment plants come online in 2011. Yet, it has streamlined the permitting process to drill a well. The treatment plants that do come online in 2011 will not be sufficient to handle the volume or properly cleanse the wastewater before it is dumped into our rivers and streams. That volume has been estimated to be nearly 20 million gallons per day. At the request of the oil and gas industry DEP Secretary John Hanger removed the County Conservation districts from any oversight or regulatory role in natural gas drilling. Hanger stated that with all of the drilling, there is bound to be environmental impact, but the economic benefit would outweigh the environmental harm. The Green Party of PA called for his resignation.

There have been numerous environmental incidents in the past couple of years. In western PA, there was the contamination of the Monongahela River and the drinking water supply of many area residents. There was the destruction of Dunkard Creek. Atlas Resources was cited for violations at 13 wells, including spills of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the sites. M.R. Dirt, a company that removes waste from drilling sites, spilled more than 7 tons of drilling dirt along a public road. Range Resources spilled nearly 5,000 gallons of wastewater, including hydraulic fracturing fluids, into a tributary of Cross Creek Lake, a protected watershed near Pittsburgh. In NEPA, There was a diesel spill of several hundred gallons in a wetland, there was a frack fluid spill of several thousand gallons that resulted in a fish kill, and there were unregulated water withdrawals from streams. DEP responded with fines that could hardly be described as punitive to companies that generate revenues of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Atlas resources paid $85,000 for its offenses. Mr. Dirt paid $6,000 for its violations. Cabot Oil & Gas Company had a litany of violations. Cabot entered into a consent agreement with DEP and negotiated a $120,000.00 fine. One of Cabot’s most egregious violations occurred on January 1, 2009. There was the explosion of a well housing for the water supply of Norma Fiorentino in Dimock. Methane had accumulated beneath the concrete slab over her well. A spark from the electrical connection to her pump ignited the methane.

Norma and others in Dimock could no longer use their once pristine water supply. Water from the faucet could be ignited. It looked and smelled bad. People got sick from drinking it. Cabot denied that this was a result of their operations. DEP studied and recommended that Cabot supply water to some, but, not all of the affected homes. Norma Fiorentino was not one of the residents to receive water. She and other Dimock residents pleaded with Cabot. Cabot still refused. When she asked if she would have to initiate a lawsuit, a Cabot lawyer told her you’ll lose. Finally fed up, a group of 15 families filed a lawsuit against Cabot for polluting their water, medical problems and the loss of value of their property.

I should point out that the Oil and Gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, EPA hazardous waste regulations which require a cradle to grave tracking system and more. Other regulatory agencies involved in the process in NEPA include the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basin Commissions. They regulate water withdrawals from streams and rivers associated with their respective rivers. Drilling companies must apply to these agencies before they withdraw any water from the basin. In fact, at least one company was fined for illegally taking water from a stream. Despite claiming to produce local jobs, many of those employed in the drilling industry are transients and bring with them an increase in crime. There has also been a housing issue. As these people move into the area rental values go up and locals are finding difficulty locating affordable housing.

What can we do?

We have formed a watchdog group called Citizens for Clean Water. Members of our group attend public meetings held by DEP and others including Penn State. These meetings are supposed to answer questions and suppress the fear of the public. They tend to be favorable to the industry, but the opposition is growing. One thing that I have learned over the course of attending these meetings for the past year or so is that no one owns the water. It is a commonwealth resource. This is where we have a right and a need to speak out. Private landowners have a right to lease their land, but, they do not have a right to utilize and deplete our water resources to enrich themselves and even more so the oil & gas companies.

Citizens for Clean Water were on hand when an 8,000 gallon frac fluid spill occurred at a drilling site. They documented the spill with video recorders and called DEP to complain. Cabot Oil & Gas was supposed to report this incident, which were actually 3 separate spills over a couple of days, but they did not until Citizens for Clean Water discovered it. Cabot was prohibited from hydrofracturing in the area until they complied with DEPs requirements. Unfortunately, that only lasted 2 weeks. We had Ben Price from the Community Environmental Defense Fund come and speak about the CELDF strategy of passing local ordinances prohibiting offensive behaviors. While I think this is a great strategy, in an area where most have signed a lease and expect to become millionaires, this would be extremely difficult to implement.

Another thing I have learned is that DEP is answerable to the Environmental Protection Agency. We must address our grievances to the EPA. The gas companies would rather deal with the state agencies and why not. They have had their way with DEP. Senator Casey is a co-sponsor of the Fracturing Responsibly and Awareness of Chemicals Act, FRAC Act for short, which would require the industry to disclose the chemicals it uses in hydrofrackturing and subject it to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil & gas industry opposes the Act. I personally don't think it goes far enough.

If drilling is planned near you, you should get a comprehensive water test done. If your water becomes contaminated, you will need this water test to validate your claim. To stand up in court, a professional must do it with no interest in your property. A chain of custody needs to be established for the water samples and an EPA certified lab must test them. This is costly, about $1,000, but necessary. You may also want to get an appraisal of your property. If your property value declines due to drilling, you could also present this evidence to the courts.

Finally, there is direct action. I believe we should use Earth Day to assemble outside DEP offices across the Commonwealth to demand that DEP fulfill its mission and protect our environment from the oil & gas industry. The Governor and General Assembly are also responsible. They have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which includes, Article I, Section 27. The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people. The failure of the Governor, our State Senators and State Reps to uphold the constitution makes them liable for damages and potential defendants in future lawsuits. We must stand up to these elected officials and challenge them at the polls.

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