Friday, February 24, 2012

Drilling, spilling, testing: Is this “routine” for Pa.?

Officials test near a spill at s drilling site in Franklin Forks
I toured northern Pennsylvania countryside this week with photographer James Pitarresi to get some current shots of drilling operations in the context of local communities they impact. I’ve made this trip to the Endless Mountains region dozens of times in recent years, and every time I find it enlightening.

First stop: Lockhart’s Lunch Counter and Gas Mart. I wanted to get some shots of Don Lockhart, one of the many people featured in Under the Surface. Don, who has run the lunch counter for 30 years, represents a pro-drilling position, and he points to his business as a reason why. Since 2008 his store is frequented by truckers, landmen, equipment operators, roughnecks, and industry people and locals who fill up on gasoline and food, and sales have been booming. The addition of a photographer and a journalist made for an interesting mix of people in the solitary store on the cross roads of South Montrose. It got even more interesting upon the arrival of Vera Scroggins, an anti-fracking activist. Vera, a Long Island native who moved to Susquehanna County decades ago, keeps a close and critical eye on drilling operations in the Endless Mountains fields and woods, and she agreed to guide a roadside tour for me and James. As in old-time westerns, the conversation at Lockhart’s counter stopped as Vera – a well-known figure in this small town -- passed through the door, her small frame backlit against the light passing through the storefront glass.  I was within earshot of one person who uttered, under his breath, “Uh-oh. Here’s trouble.”

James and I excused ourselves and headed out the door with Vera for the next leg of our trip. She led us to several active sites visible from public roads. As we approached the final one on a hill off Route 29 in Franklin Forks, we pulled over to allow several oncoming flatbeds hauling oversized hardware to squeeze past. At the site, a plume of flaming gas shot from a ground. There were various tanks assembled around the pad. To New Yorkers, from a state where shale gas development is on hold pending an environmental review, this might to be a compelling scene, but it’s nothing extraordinary by Susquehanna County standards.

As James framed the shot, I looked around and noticed men in bright blue jump suits and hard hats, coolers in hand, walking down the dirt road. Just above the pad, they stepped off the road into a rocky streambed. It was impossible for me to ignore the men, or the large DEP letters on the back of insulated one-piece suits. Upon questioning, I learned that this, apparently, is also becoming a more commonplace occurrence. I asked whether their activity was related to the EPA investigation of water pollution in 60 homes in the Dimock, a township to the south. They said no. This was a “routine” sampling. They declined to answer the obvious questions this raised. For that information, I later dialed up the DEP press office, where spokeswoman Colleen Connolly reiterated that the testing I inquired about was “routine,” and, upon further questioning, explained it was in connection with a “minor” spill. They were testing for, among other things, arsenic, bromide, magnesium, zinc, and lithium. Results were not yet available. She referred me to the DEP data base for more information.

From that online resource, I learned that the site, operated by WPX Energy, had in the last six months been written up for nine violations (with one enforcement action) ranging from lack of erosion control to “failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste.” The violation that caught my eye, however, was related to a spill of an undisclosed volume of diesel, and a faulty liner that allowed the pollution to seep into the ground. This, I deduced, was behind the “routine” testing, although the data base didn’t go into that level of detail.

The site -- the Hollenbeck well -- is about 15 miles north the Dimock Township and Carter Road, where the EPA technicians continue to sample water in 60 homes, after the federal agency determined that pollution is creating health hazards in at least four residential water supplies in the middle of a gas field, and operations related to drilling are a primary suspect. The DEP began the investigation in 2009 under governor’s Ed Rendell’s administration, which found Cabot Oil & Gas responsible for methane pollution that caused one well to explode and posed hazards in others. Governor Tom Corbett’s DEP declared the matter to be resolved in 2011, before the federal EPA took over as the lead agency early this year. The reason, according to  EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin, is to “fill information gaps” about drilling’s impact on water supplies.

As a reporter trying to answer persistent questions about the safety of shale gas development, I hope these information gaps don’t become routine.


  1. Nice way of putting it Tom, "information gaps". There are enough "gaps" to fill the Delaware Water Gap....I use to visit the DEP site and print out the violations. I was afraid now you see them now you don't. I was always bothered by the lack of penalty or fine imposed...hey to put it in the words of a DEP person.."If we fine them too much they won't report their spills". Words of comfort.

  2. A complicating factor: Companies in New York and Pa. have a history of settling drinking water issues privately with landowners without a public paper trail.