Friday, March 29, 2013

Pa. eases water standard update after industry complaint Corbett’s DEP withdraws 4 pollutants from regulatory plan

In the face of industry opposition, Pennsylvania officials have backed away from proposed standards that would limit certain kinds pollution that drilling and fracking operators can discharge into the Commonwealth’s waters.

Specifically, the agency has removed proposed standards for molybdenum, sulfates, chlorides, and 1-4 dioxane, because the restrictions “raised the concern of the business community,” according to a recent DEP report.  The constituents were originally included in proposed updates to Chapter 93, which regulates water quality under the Clean Streams Law. The revised proposal is now pending approval by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Quality Board.

The most acutely toxic of the chemicals excluded from the proposed standards is 1-4 dioxane, a manufacturing solvent that can cause illnesses ranging from cancer to organ failure, and for which there is no current water quality standard in Pennsylvania.  Chlorides and sulfates, also eliminated from the revised regs, are less acutely toxic than dioxane but can cause ecological and health problems, especially when discharged in quantity over time in water bodies already stressed by high levels. Chlorides and sulfates are principal waste components of the shale gas and mining industries. They are measured as Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), or, more simply, things that dissolve in water. Water with high TDS, often deceptively clear, can wreak havoc on fresh water systems. Chlorides can also be a flag for other possible pollution that comes deep in the ground with flowback, including undisclosed mixtures of chemical solutions and naturally occurring metals and hydrocarbons that can foul fresh water.

Oil and gas drilling and fracking operators were joined by representatives from the electric generation, coal, steel, pharmaceuticals and metallurgy interests in opposing the original Chapter 93 updates drafted by regulatory officials using current information from the field and national guidelines. Trade associations maintained the proposed restrictions on chlorides and other chemicals “were not rooted in clear scientific evidence and failed to take the economic impact of the regulated community into account,” according to a DEP report.

Dunkard Creek fish kill
The proposal to develop standards for chlorides and the other constituents was due partly to problems that have cropped up since shale gas development took off in Pennsylvania five years ago. TDS levels spiked in the Monongahela and Allegheny river systems, when drilling waste was commonly disposed in treatment plants that were unequipped to handle it. In October, 2009, TDS levels in the Monongahela exceeded water quality standards at all of the 17 Potable Water Supply (PWS) intakes from the border with West Virginia to Pittsburgh, prompting an advisory to use bottled water that affected 325,000 people. That same year, Dunkard Creek, one of the most prolific freshwater sport fisheries in the region and a tributary to the Mon, was wiped out by TDS pollution. The 43 mile creek along Pennsylvania’s rural border with West Virginia was teeming with more than 161 aquatic species ranging from freshwater mussels to 3-foot muskellunge. By September, 2009, almost everything in Dunkard Creek was dead, with the exception of an invasive microscopic alga—common in Texas estuaries—that had somehow migrated into the creek and thrived in its suddenly brackish water. The disaster was attributed to multiple factors, including discharges from mining operations, water draw downs by the drilling industry which needed large quantities of fresh water to support fracking operations, illegal dumping, and the introduction of invasive algae.

The story of Dunkard Creek and the Mon (chronicled in Under the Surface) represents a broader concern about the health of Pennsylvania waterways that lead to revisions in the Pa. Clean Streams law under governor Ed Rendell and his DEP secretary John Hanger in 2010. The Chapter 95 revision (not to be confused with the Chapter 93 revisions now on the table) restricts new treatment plants from accepting high TDS waste from drill operators, although it allows the practice to continue at old plants. Environmental watchdog groups are concerned about  plants that continue to discharge high levels of chlorides into the watershed, including Waste Treatment Corp., in Warren County, Hart Resources Technologies, in Indiana County, and two plants run by Pa. Brine, one in Venango County and one in Indiana County. The plants are discharging effluent with chloride concentrations more than two times greater than seawater, according to Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director with Clean Water Action.

A team of academicians with Resources for the Future lead by Sheila M. Olmstead examined the chloride issue in Pennsylvania waterways, with results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early this year.  The team found (among other things) that chloride levels tended to be high downstream from treatment plants, and “surface water disposal of treated waste from shale gas wells represents a potentially important water quality burden.” In addition to chloride, “many other wastewater constituents could potentially reach surface water, although available data on their concentrations is limited.” (Michael Levi, who writes for the Council on Foreign Relation's Energy Security and Climate blog, takes a broader look at the study here.)

Michael Krancer
The Chapter 93 revisions now under consideration would have provided much broader limits on untreated disposal of chlorides. The removal of the proposed standards for chloride and other pollution is consistent with the platform of Governor Tom Corbett, Rendell’s successor, who campaigned openly to oppose impediments to the industry’s expansion in Pennsylvania. The decision to ease the Chapter 93 rules came under Corbett’s DEP chief, Michael Krancer, a former and future industry attorney. This month, Krancer left the DEP to rejoin Blank Rome, effective April 15, where he will chair the energy, petrochemical, and natural resources practice. The firm describes itself as “uniquely positioned to counsel and represent shale oil and gas exploration, production, and mid-stream companies regarding all of their business needs.” During his time as DEP secretary, Krancer did little to dispel the notion held by his critics that he was too accommodating to drilling interests.

The proposal to include and then withdraw the four pollutants are part of a larger package of water standards under consideration with Chapter 93, which is periodically updated to reflect technological and cultural changes along with evolving risks to water sheds.

Arnowitt said he believes there is a chance that the federal EPA may encourage DEP to include the standards for the pollutants in its final rule. “We suspect that the DEP and the EPA are having conversations about what the finished version is going to look like,” he said. “It’s possible the DEP will change course (due to) the fact that they have not officially put it forward.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dimock water problems continue after four-plus years Results of recent cases in fracking zone not yet released

Crews use a service rig in Dimock to diagnose problems
DIMOCK, Pa. -- More than four years after the explosion of a residential water well called attention to the problem, Pennsylvania environmental officials are still trying to solve water pollution in this small town that has become infamous for shale gas development.

Recent cases involve two homes in a gas field where the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has banned drilling of new wells in the wake of chronic water pollution tracked to nearby operations of Cabot Oil & Gas. Cabot crews continue to operate a service rig between gas wells and water wells to diagnose problems in an area where the DEP has found dangerous levels of methane flowing into residential water wells near the junction of Carter Road and State Route 3023.

Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said this week that the agency has not determined when the latest round of testing will be released.

Cabot has been cited in the past for various violations that the DEP has linked to problems. Wells providing water to several dozen homes have been taken off line or fitted with filtration equipment to remove gas and other pollution since the water well of Dimock resident Norma Fiorentino exploded on New Year’s Day, 2009.

Although drilling has been banned in a nine-square mile area where problems are the worst, the DEP recently allowed fracking to stimulate production of exisiting wells. Two months ago, DEP officials responded to complaints that drinking water at several homes became turbid after crews fracked nearby natural gas wells.  Subsequent tests showed two water wells serving homes along State Route 3023 contained explosive levels of methane, according to information from the DEP.  Cabot Spokesman George Stark did not return calls for comment. In the past, he has said the problem may be linked to a frozen vent.

In addition to methane, the DEP is testing water samples taken from affected homes for various other contaminants, including metals and chlorides (listed below), which are markers for pollution from gas drilling and production.

With the recent announcement that DEP Chief Michael Krancer is stepping down, the problem will be passed on to the third administration. In 2010, John Hanger, who served as Governor Ed Rendell’s top environmental official, found that shale gas operations had ruined the aquifer serving homes in and around Carter Road. As a remedy, Hanger ordered Cabot to build an $11 million pipeline to restore fresh water to affected homes. After the order, Cabot denied that it was responsible for pollution, and the pipeline order was eventually defeated amid political opposition when Tom Corbett, a drilling supporter, was elected governor.  Last August, Cabot reached an undisclosed settlement with 32 of 36 Dimock families suing for damages related to pollution of water wells.  Other lawsuits are pending.

In an investigation last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, or methane, in five of 64 water wells – roughly 8 percent. It concluded that the concentrations could pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems drilling companies had installed or planned for the homes. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now following up with an evaluation of it’s own.

Early this year, the DEP came under fire about how it handles testing at sites suspected of pollution from gas development. In January, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced a review of the agency’s regulation, testing and enforcement program. The intention of the probe, according to a letter from DePasquale to Krancer, is to determine the "adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."

The recurring problem of pollution related to shale gas and related public relations issues will be inherited by Krancer’s successor.

While methane migration is not unique to Dimcok, the rural community has been divided by the issue, and is featured as a case study and focal point of the anti-fracking movement just across the state border in New York, where fracking is on hold pending a more extensive review of environmental and health issues.

What the DEP is testing for in Dimock water wells:
Source: DEP 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Actions, not words provide insight into NY’s fracking future 3 signs the state will not permit shale gas anytime soon

Early last summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to allow fracking on a test basis in certain areas along the state’s border with Pennsylvania over a prime area of the Marcellus Shale.  A month later, Cuomo suggested that the state’s policy review on the issue would be completed by Labor Day, or shortly after.

We have since learned that information from Cuomo and his staff about fracking has been consistent only in that it has been reliably contradictory, vague, and carefully crafted to appear neutral amid a firestorm of controversy and partisanship that have come to define New York’s fracking dilemma.   

Recent examples:

On Feb. 4, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens entered a legislative hearing room in the capitol where protesters outnumbered lawmakers and staff by more than three to one. Pressed by lawmakers, Martens testified that the final piece of the state’s policy review for gas permitting would be released by the Department of Health within “a few weeks.” That piece consists of a DOH review of whether the DEC’s plan to oversee the industry– outlined in a document called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) -- would sufficiently protect public health. Oddly, the administration has not released any scoping document, time frame, or explanation of the DOH review, and Martens told lawmakers DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah had not shared any specifics about its status with the DEC.

On Feb. 12, the DEC released a two-page memo from DOH Commissioner Shah to Martens explaining that the DOH review and recommendations would be completed “within a few weeks.”  Shah advised that, in the meantime, the DOH staff was reviewing three studies evaluating the impact of fracking on public health elsewhere. They include a federal EPA evaluation of risks to groundwater, and two studies evaluating public health indicators near shale gas development in Pennsylvania, including one by Geisinger Health Systems that will evaluate hundreds of thousands of records of patients living in shale gas regions. None of the studies will be completed this year, and Shah did not explain how DOH staff might be able to glean useful information from them in a few weeks. The tone of his letter suggested an indefinite delay.

The time to ensure the impacts on public health are properly considered is before a state permits drilling. Other states began serious health reviews only after proceeding with widespread HVHF.
In my view, that is not the right approach for New York to take if we are serious that public health is the paramount question in making the HVHF decision. And as Health Commissioner, protecting the public health is my primary job.

Since the release of the memo, Martens, Shah, and Cuomo have downplayed the notion that the review could hinder permitting for very long. The day after the memo was released, Martens said the state could still move forward with permitting shale wells, even though it missed a key deadline to adopt regulations. At a March 11 cabinet meeting, Shah said that the final DOH analysis would be done “in the next few weeks,” and in the next sentence declared the administration has “no time table” to complete it’s work, and that the science under evaluation “was a moving target.” At the same meeting, in response to a query from Gannett’s Albany correspondent Jon Campbell, Cuomo characterized the follow-up work by the DOH as possibly irrelevant. “We never said you had to wait for one of those studies or all three of those studies to finish,” he explained. “Just that they would be looked at during the pendency of the Department of Health Review.”

Campbell followed up with this logical question: If you don’t have results from those studies, what value are they to the Department of Health’s review?

Cuomo shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Call them up. Look at them. Talk to them and find out. Maybe they are totally useless. In which case they’re useless. Maybe they have some information that is instructive to you. In which case you use the information.”

I took the governor’s suggestion. I learned that the DOH staff completed its meeting with administrators of the studies weeks ago, but I could find out nothing regarding what exactly health officials were looking at or how it would be factored into the SGEIS. Amanda O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for Geisinger, confirmed that DOH officials met with members of the Geisinger research team in late February, but added “we are not granting interviews on this topic at this time.” Asked why, she replied:  “I simply prefer not to discuss the meeting.”

This tells us only that the Cuomo administration, at the expense of transparency, has designed it’s fracking modus operandi to neutralize offensives from lobbyists and grass roots activists that inevitably accompany every small sign and huge expectation that the administration is leaning one way or the other. Rather than hanging on words, those trying to predict when and if shale gas wells will be sunk in New York are better off looking at more tangible signs within the administration, including these:

1) No budget for regulatory staff. DEC administrators have said the agency will need at least 140 new staff members to regulate the shale gas industry in New York. The governor’s budget, now under negotiation with legislators, contains no money to add staff for shale gas permitting or inspection. Moreover, an advisory panel of lawmakers and representatives from the industry and environmental groups tasked with looking at revenue sources for this function has not met in the past two years, and there are no signs of it being reconvened.

2) Recent departures suggest a critical disconnect. Two administrators key to drilling policy have inexplicably resigned in recent weeks. The most high profile departure was that of Robert Hallman, Cuomo’s deputy secretary for energy and environment who is on record as advocating shale gas development as an important bridge to cleaner energy fuel sources. Perhaps more relevant, however, is the resignation of Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel Steve Russo, who was instrumental in overseeing the development of the SGEIS under Cuomo. Given that both pro and anti-fracking groups have threatened to challenge the legal soundness of the state’s policy, it seems unlikely that Cuomo would proceed without a successor to Russo who is up to speed on the legal complexity of issues that have been evolving since 2008.

3) Everything remains on hold, as deadlines pass. The most current reason for the delay – that the DOH staff is looking at other studies – is ill defined and, as Cuomo suggested, possibly irrelevant. Further, the “few weeks” timetable for that work has long passed. I have heard from multiple sources that the work is in fact done, and there are larger forces at work.  As much as those close to the fracking debate would like to see the decision made in a political vacuum, it seldom if ever works that way. The fracking decision, which is also pending legislation, is one of many chips on the big table on which things get done in Albany. Gun Control (recently passed but still relevant), Minimum Wage, Casino designations, Stop and Frisk, and myriad budget issues.

For worse or better, Cuomo has decided that fracking, for now, is one of those issues that remains on the table. The glut of gas coming on the market in Pennsylvania has made this the path of least resistance for him, as it has substantially eased the demand for New York’s share of the resource while lowering prices. Tension between both camps of the fracking debate – and poles suggesting a split in the broader public (recently nudging slightly toward anti-frackers) – suggest the status quo is less damaging to Cuomo than the sequence of events that would come with a clear commitment for or against fracking. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Timeless tale, universal themes draw press to gas rush Pennsylvania, New York provide examples for the world

Once upon a time…

There was a countryside dotted by farms and inhabited by townsfolk and visitors drawn to its down-home quality of life and serene beauty.

But all was not perfect. The farmers were growing poor and their children were growing up and moving away to seek their fortunes elsewhere. One day, strangers showed up. There are riches under the land, they said – vast stores of energy sought  by explorers regionally and globally. The prospectors were there to make a deal. They had the knowhow to extract this energy – natural gas -- and offered to pay handsomely for access. The results will be energy and jobs for everybody, they promised. Wealth will once again flow from the land, and governments, schools, churches, and civic organizations will all share in it.

Many of the townsfolk were excited. Others were skeptical. They feared they were getting only a part of the story. Surely there must be some risk of turning their land over to an unfamiliar industry to drill through the water table and extract an explosive gas along with other unknowns…? They deliberated, and the more they deliberated, the further they got from an answer.

Irish Landscape
That story is surely familiar to those in New York state living the social divisions and political uncertainty over shale gas production -- except for the lilt in the accents of the townsfolk. Did I mention that this story is taking place in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland? It’s a place of rolling hills, lush pastures, pristine lakes and burbling streams. It’s also where Tamboran Resources, a Canadian petroleum exploration company, has announced the discovery of a shale gas reserve with enough natural gas to supply Northern Ireland for more than 50 years and also export to other countries.

This is Chapter 1 of the story unfolding in Ireland, and it ends with another story. Drawn by both the timeliness and timelessness of the issues at hand, a crew from BBC of Northern Ireland flew to JFK Airport this week. From there they drove four hours to northern Appalachia and southern New York state to see firsthand how the shale gas saga has played out five years after it began with a story line similar to reports from County Fermanagh. (With some important distinctions: The state, not landowners, owns rights to oil and gas in the United Kingdom, and although landowners get paid incentives for development, they stand less direct financial gain than their counterparts in the United States.)

The BBC crew found that the outcome to the story over the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania varies, sometimes widely, depending on locality and culture. Policy makers in New York, pressed by townsfolk facing the same dilemma as those in Fermanagh and later from a national grass roots anti-fracking campaign, put a hold on shale gas extraction five years ago with no immediate resolution to the conflict in sight. Policy makers in Pennsylvania, a state with a legacy of extraction in both the petroleum and coal industry and a much higher tolerance for enduring related environmental and public health consequences, have encouraged the industry while figuring out how to deal with impacts as they develop, with mixed results.

The BBC report, hosted by Ciaran Tracey, will be aired Tuesday on Spotlight, a BBC TV Current Affairs program. I had the pleasure of meeting the crew from Ireland filming in New York and Pennsylvania. It was lead by producer Maurice May, and he asked me why I thought Dimock had become so well-known globally.

My answer: The story resonates. There is a timeless mystique to the tale of a stranger visiting your home and proffering a deal involving an unknown windfall that will change your life. The various Dimock narratives (told in Under the Surface and End of Country) personify the classic promise of rags to riches and the theme of disillusionment that often accompanies the notion that money will set things right. The civic context in which this story unfolds is also timeless. The security and comfort of small-town life is challenged, changed, buoyed or swamped by global forces and technology. In this case the global force is energy demand and the technology fracking. (These themes are also central to the fictional movie "Promised Land.")

There are other compelling factors at work in Dimock: When the fledgling onshore drilling boom was hot, the story fell under the scrutiny of news teams from New York turning to the unfolding land play in Pennsylvania, and it had no shortage of “good stuff’” on which to build reports: everyday people – seeking no notoriety or office – compelled into activism against multi-national corporations; fights over land and water; and perhaps most compelling, an industry that flatly denied problems while refusing to disclose information, thereby inviting media investigation and public scrutiny. Dimock in particular and the gas story in general has all the things that motivate journalists, plus one more – snowballing grass roots movements influencing outcomes in two states and inspiring the notion that government is motivated and directed by the people, no matter how polarizing the issues.

The moral of the story unfolding in Dimock, County Fermanagh, and countless small towns sitting over large mineral reserves across the word will vary depending on who tells it.

The industry:  Free-enterprise plus hard work = wealth and freedom

The activist: Pirates come dressed as landmen. 

My own: Don’t look for happily ever after outside of fairy-tales. But there is plenty of inspiration to be found by small town people aspiring to make a big difference. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cuomo’s reported fracking stance too vague for meaning Things to watch include Senate bill 4046; Pa. health study

It was another busy week in New York, with comments from the political elite and action in the Legislature building expectation about the state’s fracking future, but producing no tangible results 

… so far.

Last weekend, the Associated Press reported Gov. Andrew Cuomo came “closer than ever” to approving shale gas development in New York. This information was attributed to environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. -- the governor’s former brother in law -- and two other sources “close to the governor.”  On Monday, the AP reported that Cuomo denied the “closer than ever” characterization, leaving even more room for interpretation and speculation.

Meanwhile, the NY Assembly passed a moratorium on fracking on Wednesday, a day after a similar bill was introduced by leadership in the Senate.

First, regarding the Cuomo/Kennedy exchange: In the news business, we call this type of story “a talker.” It’s short on hard information and long on public intrigue. There is nothing wrong with talkers. With pressing demand for information on an important topic, and in the absence of a tangible hook to hard news – in this case anything definitive about the status or substance of New York’s evolving fracking policy -- a well-crafted, timely talker can advance leads, stimulate debate, and leverage responses in the interest of making matters public that should be public.

Here’s the lead of AP’s follow-up story Monday:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday a discussion over a new study ... with his former brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., didn't derail an imminent approval of the natural gas drilling method that could remain in limbo for another year.

Kennedy had told the AP that he persuaded the governor to hold off on fracking plans pending information from a $1 million study by Geisenger Health Systems, a care provider in Pennsylvania Shale Gas country. (I’ll cover that in a moment). As we learn a bit later in the story, Cuomo didn’t really clear things up in denial.

"I think the issue suddenly got simple for him," Kennedy told the AP. Then Kennedy paraphrased Cuomo in their discussions: "'If it's causing health problems, I really don't want it in New York state. And if it's not causing health problems, we should figure out a way we can do it.'"

Cuomo agreed with that characterization...

"It sounds like what I've said, it sounds like what I've said to you 9 million times — that this has great possible economic benefit for the state, in a part of the state that badly needs jobs, but you have to make sure it's safe and there is no health risk," Cuomo said. "So that is my general position."

Whether the issue “suddenly got simple for him” is questionable. Regardless, Cuomo takes a reasonable and fair position in explaining his hesitancy. But perhaps the reason the governor has to repeat it so often is because his refusal to elaborate. Neither Cuomo nor his administrators are disclosing how they are evaluating risks, or why this public policy discussion is taking place behind closed doors. The closest we get is the governor’s reinterpretation of his own vague remarks.

So the media turns to other sources, such as Kennedy. And to available documents, such as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. The S-GEIS, as it’s known, is an evolving document last released in draft form in the fall of 2011, when it became a focal point for fracking critics and grass roots protesters who said it fell short of protecting public health and the environment. (Note: My original post incorrectly listed the date of the last S-GEIS draft as 2010.) DEC Commissioner Joe Martens announced last September that he would ask the DOH, with the help of several consultants, to review the current S-GEIS draft (yet to be released) to address questions about health risks from full scale shale gas development. Yet Marten’s request to the DOH came with no publically released scope, timeframe, form, or explanation of what exactly is being reviewed. 

A month ago, DOH Commissioner Nirav Shah notified Martens that the department’s review was “on-going” and he anticipated delivering a final report and recommendations “within a few weeks.”  (That was on Feb. 12.) Specifically, Shah advised that the DOH would need to take into account studies under way by the federal EPA, Geisinger Health Systems of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pennsylvania, although the memo offered no time frame or explanation of how these multi-year studies would be factored into New York’s review. The Geisinger study, which was a focus of Kennedy’s appeal to Cuomo, is especially significant. The health care institution will draw on its detailed electronic records of hundreds of thousands of patients living near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania to evaluate correlations between shale gas development and health conditions such as asthma, trauma, and cardiovascular disease. The study will consider possible exposure pathways to unhealthy byproducts of fracking through water and air.

Sources close to New York’s process to evaluate shale gas have told me that the DOH and DEC administrators have essentially completed their work, and the outcome is now being managed by Cuomo himself. That comes as no surprise, given the political stakes in the decision.  New York sits over lucrative parts of both the Utica and Marcellus shales, which are among the largest natural gas reserves in the world. The Empire State is also the only state sitting over major mineral reserves that has not developed a policy regarding how or if they will be exploited.  Polls show voters divided on the subject, and each side is represented by grass roots and strong institutional lobbies pressing Cuomo on an issue that will likely be significant in defining his legacy. 

The low price of natural gas, which effectively decreases the worth of the mineral rights that have encouraged landowners to support gas development, takes some pressure off of the Cuomo. With the governor in no hurry to make a decision, advocates for and against are turning to a pivotal battle taking shape in the state Senate.  On Tuesday David Carlucci, part of an independent caucus of Democrats that shares control of the Senate with Republicans, introduced S-4046. Carlucci’s bill would place a two-year moratorium on shale gas development, pending the outcome of the studies mentioned in Shah’s report. The Assembly passed a similar measure on Monday, signaling that leadership from both chambers is ready to resolve differences to legislate the matter. Shale gas proponents still hold a powerful card, however. Senate Deputy Republican Leader Tom Libous – who represents fracking supporters in the Southern Tier -- has vowed to block the bill from getting to the Senate floor. 

With this, it looks like there will be no shortage of news in coming weeks about New York’s labors to deal with shale gas policy. Whether it amounts to any significant developments is another question. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pa. DEP considers fracking in Dimock water pollution case Tainted water wells in no-drill zone, but fracking allowed

Pennsylvania environmental officials are attempting to track the source of explosive levels of methane in two private water wells in a shale gas field in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

That in itself is not especially newsworthy. The small town in northern Susquehanna County has been the focus of state and national investigations since 2009, when gas linked to nearby drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas seeped into the aquifer and caused a water well to explode. It’s significant, however, that the recent problems emerged in the middle of a 9-square mile area where the DEP banned drilling four years ago due to chronic methane migration problems. It’s also significant that the agency allowed fracking to resume at two nearby gas wells.

 EPA technician collects samples at a Dimock home last year
Photo James Pitarresi 
Dimock, population 1,400, was among the first Pennsylvania towns to feel the expectations and impact of the Marcellus Shale rush. Much of the town was leased for shale gas exploration in 2006 through 2008. Since then, a history of problems and complaints have made Dimock a household name for those questioning the role of shale gas extraction in the country’s energy future.

Last August, Cabot Oil & Gas reached an undisclosed settlement with 32 of 36 Dimock families suing for damages related to pollution of their water wells.  Other lawsuits are pending. Due to widely publicized concerns, the federal Environmental Protection Agency began its own investigation last year. After six months of testing, the EPA found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, or methane, in five of 64 water wells – roughly 8 percent. It concluded that the concentrations could pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems drilling companies had installed or planned for the homes. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now following up with an evaluation of it’s own.

In recent weeks, investigators, responding to complaints, have found two new cases where methane concentrations in private water wells pose an explosion hazard, said Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the DEP.  The contaminated water supplies are near the Costello and Gesford gas wells. Those wells, drilled into the Marcellus Shale, were fracked last fall, Connolly said.

And this makes the story more than another gas-migration case. The industry has disputed claims that fracking – the use of pressurized chemical solution to break rock and release gas in deep formations – poses a threat to water tables above them. In fact, it has denied that it has ever happened. That denial is at the root of a national controversy that has raised the stakes on the outcome of ongoing investigations by the DEP and the EPA in Dimock and elsewhere.

It is known that methane migration can happen naturally in gas rich zones. It is also known that drilling (apart from fracking) can cause or intensify problems by opening pathways through the aquifer into pressurized zones below. The problem is managed by casing the well bore with cement to seal off the aquifer, a method that is effective but not foolproof.  

Not do be confused with drilling, fracking is done to stimulate the flow of gas after the well bore has been cemented. It’s functionally and technically a separate process from drilling. The industry’s insistence that fracking cannot create pathways for pollution to reach the aquifer has drawn scrutiny in several controversial cases.

An EPA investigation in 2011 found water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Pavillion, Wyoming were polluted with synthetic chemicals, glycols, alcohols, methane, and petroleum hydrocarbons “consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.” The drilling company implicated in the study, EnCana, has denied responsibility, and the industry is challenging the EPA conclusions.

In a lesser-known case, the Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management concluded that fracking caused an explosion in Bainbridge in 2007. One house was destroyed and 19 other homes were evacuated due to high methane levels.  According to the agency’s investigation, the problem arose when Ohio Valley Energy Systems Corp fracked the well without properly cementing the production casing.  

The most recent problem in Dimock surfaced after a water well near a gas well turned turbid in early February, according to the DEP's Connolly. She declined to disclose the location, but residents report that crews have been working at two affected homes near the intersection of Carter Road and State Route 3023, which are also near gas wells that have been fracked.

Cabot Spokesman George Stark was unavailable for comment today. The company has blamed the problem on a frozen pipe used to vent methane gases, Connolly said.

The water wells have been taken off line, and methane concentrations have fluctuated since the problem began, Connolly said. Regulators have not reached conclusions about the cause of the problem, and they are continuing to monitor the work of Cabot, Connolly said. Cabot contracts Crews were at the site last week with a drilling rig used to service and inspect gas wells.

While there is relatively little documentation associating high volume hydraulic fracking to water pollution -- apart from spills and accidents related to handling fracking chemicals and waste above the surface before and after they are injected into the ground -- risks of methane migration from drilling are relatively well known. In September, 2009, the DEP issued a draft report that found methane migration from gas drilling, had “caused or contributed to” at least six explosions that killed four people and injured three others in Pennsylvania alone over the course of the decade preceding full-scale Marcellus development. The threat of explosions had forced 20 families from their homes. At least 25 other families have had to deal with the shut-off of utility service or the installation of venting systems in their homes. At least 60 water wells (including three municipal supplies) had been contaminated.