Natural Gas Pollution: What Chesapeake Energy and Department of Environmental Protection Concluded about Towanda Creek Blowout

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This is the first story in a three part investigation of how natural gas pollution is being handled in Pennsylvania.

In a Public Herald file review of an environmental assessment report submitted by Chesapeake Energy about the Atgas well blowout, also referred to as a “well control incident,” documents stated that damages were “very minimal and that no remediation is required for the soil, sediment or shallow groundwater.”

Podcast: Chesapeake Energy Bradford County Blowout

(DEP file photograph) Sampling location downstream Towanda Creek. Location moved to Monroeton Bridge due to high flow. NE side of Monroeton side. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

The blowout occurred in Bradford County, Pennsylvania back in April 2011 near Towanda Creek, and was highly criticized for depending on a Texas contractor to act as the response team for containing the spill, when statewide crews were expected to be hired according to a 2010 plan.

Conditions at the time of the event prompted the precautionary evacuation of several families from surrounding homes and may have resulted in the contamination of at least one residential water well (cited below).

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) received the report in October after a back and forth about deadlines. It followed routine testing from environmental firms hired by Chesapeake Energy as well as the DEP.

Chesapeake’s report was prepared by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a Fortune 500® company based in McLean, VA. that shares at least one board member with Chesapeake and joined the industry advocacy group, Marcellus Shale Coalition, in March 2011.

SAIC’s Financial Tear Sheet states that the company “solve[s] problems of vital importance to the nation and the world, in national security, energy and the environment, critical infrastructure, and health” employs about 41,000 people and “serve[s] customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, the intelligence community, [and] the U.S. Department of Homeland Security” among others.

SAIC claimed “annual revenues of $11.1 billion for its fiscal year ended January 31, 2011” on the tear sheet.

(DEP file photograph) Sampling location: mouth of UNT: sampling location modified due to high flow. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

Documents filed separately by Chesapeake and DEP on June 28, reviewed by Public Herald at DEP’s Regional Office in Williamsport, Pa., revealed a residential water well with levels of chloride, barium, strontium, and iron present above safe drinking water standards in relation to the Chesapeake blowout in April.

In a weekly status report submitted to DEP September 7, 2011, the company stated that a “reverse osmosis system” was installed by SAIC at one residence and that “the bottom fracture zone of the …water well was sealed.”

According to an executive summary of Chesapeake’s final report, “approximately 10,000 gallons of well fluid mixed with rainwater was discharged offsite into pasture land, a small farm pond adjacent to the [well] pad, and a drainage swale connected to an unnamed tributary (UNT) of Towanda Creek.” The ‘majority’ of the waste was “captured in catchment basins adjacent to the pad and in containment areas as part of the release efforts.”

87 soil samples were collected between June 30, 2011 and October 6, 2011 by SAIC and Groundwater and Environmental Service, Inc. (GES). The executive summary stated that soil samples showed “dissolved radioactive isotopes…equivalent to the range of activity present in background” samples and concluded that “[n]one of the detected metals, volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organics or radionuclides detected in soil was associated with the ATGAS release.”

(DEP file photograph) Puddles of water downslope of east sediment retention basin. Conductivity measurements: 2.5 mS/cm, 2.4 mS/cm, 1.9 mS/cm. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

The soil investigation conducted for the report revealed “arsenic at a few sample locations” which exceeded the state’s “medium specific residential guideline of 12mg/kg” but that “all of the arsenic concentrations were within published background concentrations.” The following were also found in soil samples:

  • “trace concentrations of ethanol”
  • “concentrations of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons and Oil and Grease…determined by the laboratory to be naturally-occurring and not related to petroleum”
  • “trace levels of a few volatile organic compounds, primarily laboratory contaminants”
  • “low concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in surface soils (0-1 ft)…all naturally-occurring or associated with road asphalt”

SAIC and GES concluded that “few detected results” — from 17 sediment samples of two nearby ponds, the ditch/drainage swale and UNT [unnamed tributary], and Towanda Creek, were taken May 19 to May 31, 2011 — “could be attributed to the fluid release from the ATGAS well pad in April, 2011, except low-level metals detected in sediment from a small pond north of the [well] pad.”

(DEP file photograph) Atgas sediment retention basin on East side: coupling between blue hose and pump leaking water onto ground. Conductivity 8.5 mS/cm. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

Shallow groundwater samples were collected “from five monitoring wells” during “sampling events, one in July  2011, the second in August, 2011, and the third in October, 2011” that found chloride and other inorganics “generally consistent with regional groundwater quality,” but the summary did not include references to which regional groundwater data was used to make that determination.

Dissolved metals were “typically non-detected…or at background [sample] levels” and “trace levels of ethanol and 2-butoxythanol were detected inconsistently in three of the monitoring wells” but “was not confirmed when the samples were reanalyzed, and none of these compounds were present in groundwater from the October 2011 sampling event.”

Results for dissolved radionuclides were “generally equivalent” to a background sample “based on dissolved sample results” according to Chesapeake’s report, which also stated that the “minimal impact” from Chesapeake’s “well control incident” will be remediated by “removing accumulated sediment” in catchment basins. Chesapeake will also test removed soil and sediment for contaminant levels higher than “applicable regulatory standards” — unidentified in the summary.

Towanda Creek in Bradford County (PA) that was impacted by frack water during the Chesapeake blowout in April 2011. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

The summary concluded that “[n]o other remediation is required for the shallow groundwater, site soils, or sediments in area ponds or drainages…[n]o further monitoring or site characterization” will take place, nor is it required by the DEP.

A list of conclusions based on the report’s findings stated “released fluids from the ATGAS pad did not infiltrate shallow perched groundwater due to the fact the poorly-drained shallow soils were fully saturated” when waste fluids and rainwater overpowered the well pad and containment areas, preventing “further infiltration” of the waste into soils and shallow groundwater.