Fraccidents Happen, Especially in Eastern PA

In 2010, drillers spent $33.5 million literally drilling the message that fracking is safe into the public’s collective pretty head. Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, however, is not an exact science. The end product, natural gas, is indeed a significantly cleaner burning fossil fuel, as it has fewer carbon emissions than oil or coal, but the process of blasting it out of shale a mile underground remains totally fraught.

The Fraccidents Map is the interactive website you hate to love. I check it like an analyst watches over stocks. I squint at the tiny pictures and contemplate rural landscapes tainted by gas drilling pollution. I try to imagine a once bucolic patch of Pennsylvania silenced, marred or even maimed by insidious toxins. I think about the people who live near those little glades and hollows, and the poor fish and birds and frogs, and the hapless, thirsty dog who innocently laps up water downstream. I think about roads gone suddenly slick with a ten-mile spill of drilling lubricant. On the map, fracking accident locations across the country are indicated with a skull `n crossbones. Click to get thumbnail and source reporting information. The Fraccidents Map is produced by EarthJustice.org

Better Cement

Fraccidents in the Commonwealth are steadily accumulating – along with new law suits and record fines. And Pennsylvania has way more fraccidents than other states, in fact we’re the national leader by a mile! Environmental scientists don’t know yet where the tipping point will be.

Proponents say fracking has been done safely for nearly 60 years. It’s true that fracking in a rudimentary form has been around for decades. Horizontal slick water fracturing, though, now that’s a relatively new development, devised by up-and-comer Range Resources in 1997.

Today, industry scientists and engineers continue to refine the technology. As it stands, fracking cannot be done both environmentally and economically. The technology, the best practices, and the regulatory oversight simply aren’t there yet. So, for, now the gas industry and the PA Department of Environmental Protection are placing great faith in state-of-the-art “cement jobs.”

Casing the mile-long, 8-inch in diameter shaft of a frack well bore, however, is no mean feat. Actually, drillers are only required to encase the well bore for a portion of its overall depth. Nevertheless, the PA DEP prides itself on developing and enforcing uniquely stringent requirements, and to that, I do say, bravo! But the deeper the cement goes, the hotter the hole, the more likely it is to crack under the extreme pressure yet to be applied. I merely wish cement and steel tubing weren’t the only thing between fracking, which can extend for up to a mile from the well bore itself, and local water pollution. And, what’s more alarming, it seems the state’s best emergency plans generally involve a coupla guys and a Minuteman vacuum truck.

The problem with “local” water pollution is, if you have enough of it, there’s no way to keep it localized. If we pollute too many pockets of the Delaware River watershed, eventually the aquifer itself, and our drinking water along with it, will become generally more toxic. Local hydrological cycles link us all. What’s more, Pennsylvania has more private water wells than any other state in the U.S. In fact, many of our municipal water suppliers in Pennsylvania source a portion of their water from wells. Private water wells are virtually unregulated in our state.

Luckily, Pennsylvania legislators seems to have more than enough of their own ideas on the slowly emerging suggestions from Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Our state senators and reps have constituents to respond to. Most want to see develop a better infrastructure and a solid plan for gas. Eventually, in the autumn perhaps, Republicans and Democrats may even come together on some of the important issues – like taxation. Our representational democratic process might even being to truly protect Pennsylvanians. Let’s hope they hit the ground running.

Harrisburg enjoys extra recess at this traditionally slow time of year. Leaders vacated Harrisburg right after passing the state budget on time for the first time in nine years. But for gas drillers fracking away in the Upper Delaware, summer is peak season.

Ironic-ville, PA…

When I click on the Jolly Roger closest to where we live in Southeastern PA, I marvel at the irony of the names of these unlucky locales. Seriously, you couldn’t make them up. A few examples:

Springville Township, PA:  In June 2008, several hundred gallons of diesel fuel leaked from a natural gas well site and flowed into a Springville wetland.

Clearville Township, PA:   In June 2010, after fracking operations began on a farm, the owner’s livestock mysteriously began having motor-skill breakdowns followed by sudden death. A veterinarian said the deaths may have been caused by arsenic, high levels of which were found in water on the farmer’s property.

Waterville, PA:   In February 2011, Pennsylvania General Co. LLC, a Warren PA based company, drilling in a state forest allowed Airfoam HD to enter the water table and discharge a foamy substance into a local spring, eventually finding its way into Pine Creek. DEP Northcentral Region explains that Airfoam HD is used by natural gas drillers to create a foam that lifts water and drill cuttings to the surface. Although the company blamed rainfall and snowmelt for this incident, the discharge was a violation of regulations including Clean Streams Law and Solid Waste Management Act, which resulted in a fine of $28,960 for illegal emissions.

Wallis Run Road:   In February 2011, a slick, slippery substance caused the closing of a 10-mile stretch of road from Wallis Run Road in parts of Eldred, Gamble and Cascade townships until is it cleaned up. Although the situation is framed as a road safety issue with the substance classified as residual waste, testing revealed the substance to be a friction reducer used in the natural gas industry.

Hopewell, PA:   In March, 2010, a 100-by-80-foot impoundment (400,000 gallon capacity) filled with wastewater produced from hydraulic fracturing exploded early Wednesday, March 31, 2010. Residents reported strong gas odors in the days preceding the loud explosion, which set the impoundment, its plastic liner, and nearby equipment on fire. The flames were reportedly one hundred feet high and a black plume of smoke was visible for miles Also, between December 5 and 6, 2009, at a site run by Atlas Resources, a pit containing 750,000 gallons of fresh water mixed with wastewater overflowed into a small tributary. And in May 2009, a pipe transporting wastewater to an impoundment pit sprang a leak, sending about 5,000 gallons of wastewater into a tributary of Cross Creek Lake. A fish kill was reported. In August 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Atlas Resources $97,350 for the December 2009 spill, which the company failed to report.

Asylum Township, PA:   In February, 2009, 295 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled at a drill site operated by Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC in Aslyum Township, Pennsylvania. The incident occurred after workers put the hydrochloric acid in a storage tank not designed to hold acidic contents.

Mt. Pleasant, PA:  In October, 2009, in Mt. Pleasant Township, PA, raw natural gas escaped from a pipeline with such force that it caused nearby homes to shake. The high pressure gas was not being burned and was released for over an hour, causing a loud sustained noise to be heard throughout the area. One resident living about a quarter mile from the compressor station said it sounded like a “rocket taking off.” He said the escaped gas caused a burning sensation in his eyes and made him cough.

Roaring Branch, PA:   In August 2009, officials investigated a natural gas well leak after residents near the town of Roaring Branch reported that rust-colored water was flowing from a spring and two creeks were bubbling with methane gas. One woman was evacuated from her home as a precaution, four homes are now being delivered drinking water, and 18 homes are having their water monitored. It is believed that a failed casing on one of the natural gas wells is to blame for the contamination.

And Much Closer To Home… What Would Billy Penn Make of All This Fracking?
Penn Township, PA:   In November, 2010, an estimated 13,000 gallons of fracking fluid from water tanks spilled at an XTO Energy natural gas well pad off of Marquardt Rd. An inspector noticed that a valve on a 21,000 gallon fracking fluid tank was left open and spilled the fluid contaminating the Muncy Creek watershed. Minuteman Response trucks vacuumed the spilled fluids and excavated the surrounding area, but meter readings indicate the presence of fracking fluid. Also, in December 2009, Chief Gathering, LLC was boring a path for a pipeline 13 feet under a stream, wetland and road in Penn Township, in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, when the synthetic muds used to drill the hole erupted to the surface.

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