“Pretty Please” Doesn’t Stop Surface Discharges
Nearly everyday it seems there’s a new report of Marcellus shale gas waste spilling in Pennsylvania’s wetlands and streams, DEP violations like this recent “discharge” reported by SkyTruth:
Issued to Energy Corporation of America on July 22, 2013 – Code 307CSL: Discharge of unconventional industrial drilling waste to waters of Commonwealth without a permit in Clearfield, Girard Township (ID#673076)
And this large spill reported by Laura Legere in DEP: Spill At Well Site Seeps Into House, Miniature Horse Farm in The Times Tribune on May 1, 2013:
“An unknown amount of the fluid escaped the pad, flowed down a hill, crossed a road and entered the basement and garage of a nearby farmhouse, Ms. Connolly said. It soaked property at the horse farm, whose owners were out of state, but a farmhand kept the animals safely away from the fluid.”
On both sides of the shale gas safety debate, experts agree that “surface spills” hold the greatest threat for surface water and groundwater contamination. Pennsylvania, by the way, is home to more fresh water resources than any other state in the continental U.S.
“Surface spills of fracturing fluids appear to pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing itself,” writes Bryan R. Walsh in Shale Gas: It’s Not the Fracking That Might Be the Problem. It’s Everything Else, Time Magazine, on February 17, 2012. While Walsh pays short shrift the long term impacts of deteriorating wellbore seals, his premise certainly rings true right now. Every week, we see more spills, more overturned tankers and leaky valves, each one a small-scale, highly toxic event unto itself, and it invariably concludes with a dead stream and DEP asking drillers to promise not do it again.
A Water-Tight Case?
And then there are spills so big and negligent that the EPA has no choice but to step in and sue the driller, as is the case of this EXXON/XTO Energy violation, reported earlier this week:
US Sues Exxon Fracker in Pennsylvania Over Polluted Drinking Water: A federal lawsuit claims hydraulic fracking has polluted public drinking waters in Pennsylvania with toxic wastes by Erin McAuley, AlterNet, July 24, 2013
Yup, it’s true. Obama Administration Sues Exxon for Polluting Pennsylvania Drinking Water with Toxic Fracking Waste, AllGov.com, July 24, 2013
McAuley reports: “In its lawsuit, the United States says a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit may be issued to authorize pollutant discharge into federal waters but only on the condition that all discharges meet applicable Clean Water Act requirements, which is not the case for the Lycoming County well.
“According to the complaint, ‘flowback fluid and produced fluid contain brine, proppant, hydraulic fracturing chemicals, dissolved solids, heavy metals and radionuclides.’”
“The state inspector observed an open valve on a 21,000 gallon Baker Tank. The contents of the Baker Tank were being released to the ground. The Baker Tank was connected internally to five other Baker tanks, all of which stored flowback fluid and produced fluid. The flowback fluid and produced fluid stored in the tanks contained, among other things: barium, calclium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium, bromide, chloride, total dissolved fluids.
“The flowback fluid and produced fluid released from the Baker Tank flowed overland to the drainage basin for the Lower Branch of the Susquehanna River. It also drained through the surface soils and into groundwater, which was then released in seeps to a spring and in unnamed tributary known as Tributary 19617.“
According to innumerable violations issued by PA DEP, the waters of the Commonwealth have been subjected to a continual stream of fracking waste discharges since the drilling boom began.
Unregulated Fun Time In The Gas Fields
In April, 2011, then-Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Michael Krancer asked drillers to discontinue their practice of sending millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive briny frack flowback to the state’s aging waste water treatment facilities because they were ill-equipped to treat it.
In February, 2012, Act 13 was signed by Pennsylvania Gasser-In-Chief Tom Corbett, on Valentine’s Day no less, and the practice of sending waste to the treatment plants, all of which discharge back into the waterways which are a primary source of our drinking water, became officially illegal.
Since then, shale gas production has also ramped up to more than 6,000 unconventional wells, and we’ve seen a tidal wave of fresh frack waste. In April 2013, Krancer resigned from his post amidst an investigation by the state’s auditor general into how his office handled citizens’ water tests. And despite DEP’s good manners with gas drillers, their toxic, briny, radioactive flowback continues to find its way into our rivers and streams, and quite possibly our groundwater.
As recently as July, 2013, Krancer was boasting to self-avowed “columnist” Mike Weilbacher of Main Line Media News that his “pretty please” approach had worked, He asserted that the “litigation route would have taken years.” As was characteristic of his tenure at DEP, there was no mention of the legislative route. Krancer also credits himself with reducing salts levels in water leaving drilling sites “down virtually to zero.”
Shale Fail: Where’s The Waste Now?
• Much of the toxic, briny flowback from Marcellus shale gas wells can be found in open double-lined, bermed-up ponds near well bores, evaporating methane and formaldehyde into the hydrological cycle.
• Lots of waste is sloshing around in the back of tanker trucks barreling down what once was a quiet, county road.
• Some of it is being injected back into the ground for another frack.
• Too much of it is being sent to other states and Mexico to be shot down into deep injection wells until the earth quakes, then left to be dealt with in another lifetime.
• A small portion is crudely distilled then deposited in an “approved” wastewater treatment facility, upstream from major urban population centers and the Chesapeake Bay.
The rest, who knows? Certainly not DEP.
Obviously, I’m not the only one who’s alarmed by this accumulating danger, and the increasingly inadequate oversight by a hamstrung state agency. Ian Urbina wrote about it in the New York Times: Drilling Down series in Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers , February, 2011.
More recently, Sharon Kelly covered the issue in Radioactive Waste From the Marcellus Shale Continues to Draw Concern, in DeSmog Blog, June 3, 2013:
“Last week, the EPA announced it has reached a settlement with Fluid Recovery Services LLC, an industrial waste treatment plant which had been discharging natural gas wastewater into a Pennsylvania creek without properly treating it. Environmental regulators discovered high levels of radium around the plant’s discharge pipe. The plant was fined over $80,000 and the operator agreed to make up to $30 million in upgrades before accepting any more Marcellus shale wastewater.”
Then, six weeks later on July 18, 2013, Kelly reported: Another Pennsylvania Wastewater Treatment Plant Accused of Illegally Disposing Radioactive Fracking Waste. This time: “‘Waste Treatment Corporation has been illegally discharging oil and gas wastewater since at least 2003, and continues to discharge such wastewater without authorization under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Streams Law,’ the notice of intent to sue delivered by Clean Water Action reads.”
Wait A Minuteman
Come to think of it, what was the reason for that mysterious FBI raid on Minuteman Environmental Services LLC in May, 2013?
FBI Raids Plant Corbett Hailed Last Year As ‘American Success Story’ Milton-Standard Journal via Philly.com, May 30, 2013
Fed and State Agents Raid Milton PA’s Minuteman Environmental Services by Steven Todd, May 31, 2013
The 2013 miniature horse farm spill, which came on the heels of another 220,000 gallon spill that caused the evacuation of three Pennsylvania families, inspired democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Hanger, to write on his own blog, FactsOfTheDay:
“When frack fluids are still ending up in the basements of Pennsylvanians, preventing and containing all spills at the surface plainly needs even more attention from regulators and every company in the industry.”
Chances are, if you live downstream from the Marcellus, you might. While Hanger and others historically deny it, you may want to get your own TDS meter for good measure.
Radium 226 Discovered in Pa. River ! by Chip Northrup, ShaleShock Blog, July 19, 2013
Fracking Our Water Supply: Add a Twist of Lemon, But Hold the Methane Please by Margaret Brewster, Editor, LivingGreen Magazine, July 18, 2013
Spill, Baby, Spill: Almost daily reports of high profile and high volume spills, explosions, accidents, deaths, reported violations and acknowledgement of old and continuing violations. List by no means complete. Maintained by Marcellus Outreach Butler.
Counties Seek Act 13 Funds For Groundwater Studies by Marie Cusick, StateImpactPA, July 24, 2013
The Executive Order That Could Save U.S. Water Supplies by Environmental Working Group via EcoWatch, July 17, 2013
EPA Fines XTO Energy $100,000 for the Spill of 2010. by Sarah Lowrey, Protecting Our Waters, July 26, 2013