Triple Divide: Fracking Pennsylvania’s Exceptional Value Waters

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The following is a Triple Divide chapter (w/ files) on natural gas drilling violations in Exceptional Value watersheds where fracking has occurred — fracking is a process of using water, sand, chemicals and pressure to opens cracks in deep shale layers and extract trapped methane gas.

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Triple Divide: EV Chapter

Written/Directed by J.B. Pribanic and M.A. Troutman of Public Herald

Narrated by Melissa Troutman (MT) [Managing Editor of Public Herald, former Director of Creative Play, Assistant Director of Commercial Video, and Staff Photographer at My Video Factory, freelance writer and journalist]

Interviewees appearing in this chapter:

Bob Ging [Assistant Attorney General for Gov. Thornburgh, DER (now DEP) 1978-1982, In charge of Mining Enforcement Program, Helped write state mining laws and amendments to Cleans Streams Law & Solid Waste Management Act]

Tennessee Gas manager

Exceptional Value

MT: Even though drilling and fracking around the Triple Divide is a fraction of what it is in Bradford County, Potter County has seen its own problems.

TENNESSEE GAS: A lot of the homeowner’s and farmers that have come in had a lot of nice things to say.  But it seems like, around Potter County, it seems like they’ve been having all kinds of issues with the producers from early on here.

The Cherry Springs vista [pictured here] forms headwaters for Pennsylvania’s largest spread of Exceptional Value streams, the state’s highest recognized classification by DEP for healthy ecosystems. These virgin hydrologic landscapes also hold exceptional resources for the Marcellus Shale Play. © J.B.Pribanic

MT: Every state is required to maintain or preserve the quality of its waters under the federal Clean Water Act, by enforcing laws that protect waterways based on their “designated use” such as potable water source, trout fishery, or recreation site. In Pennsylvania, the most protected of all waters are classified as Exception al Value (EV) and High Quality (HQ) by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Early on in 2009, violations began to pile up even, and especially, around Exceptional Value waters.

Exceptional Value water bodies are virgin hydrologic landscapes of wetlands, streams, and watersheds, requiring the most stringent of precautionary principles to preserve their pristine quality.

The southern half of Potter County is covered by the most EV and HQ streams in the state, within Pennsylvania’s largest tract of publicly-owned forests, managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

This was where the first Marcellus well was drilled in Triple Divide headwaters, in the Susquehannock State Forest.

In 2008, the first shale gas site for Triple Divide was constructed near the  high quality East Fork Sinnemahoning.  Just upstream the East Fork is EV.  At the time [2008], industrial shale gas extraction was allowed within 200 feet of an HQ stream.

The violations for this site on file at DEP, include drilling fluid spills, accelerated erosion, and tears in the pond liners holding waste fluid.

DEP approved an application for the drilling company, Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE), to bury its waste pit onsite without special conditions. However, PGE was later written up during an inspection for digging the waste pit below the Seasonal High Water Table. This water table is the closest groundwater ever gets to the surface. If waste “sits” below this table and becomes saturated, contaminants leech into the water and are carried into nearby streams…such as the East Fork Sinnemahoning.

DEP did not require PGE to remediate the buried waste pit next to the East Fork.

Birch & Big Nelson Runs

BOB GING: You look at the political situation and you look at the laws and you look at the experience.  We’ve never experienced anything like this in Pennsylvania. Ever.  But DEP’s inspectors had to learn proper casing techniques, they had to learn what was going on.

MT: DEP issued another permit to PGE to build a Marcellus gas well pad in the Birch Run Exceptional Value Watershed even though the company had broken the law several months earlier by “beginning construction” and “boring under a stream” at another location without a permit. DEP enforced the violation by simply requiring PGE to quickly submit the proper paperwork.

For Birch Run, as well as neighboring Big Nelson Run and its tributaries, extra protections were outlined in the company’s Erosion and Sediment Control paperwork on the 8.4 acres of this EV watershed, approved by the Department in July, 2009.

But an inspection five months later revealed that PGE had not built its site according to plans approved by the Department, and had added a large hand drawn frac fluid pond to the site.  Other violations include at least three spills of toxic flowback waste. Waste storage tanks were found leaking and sitting on bare ground.

According to Public Herald file reviews and online compliance reports, the spills were remediated and the unapproved  frack fluid pond stayed. PGE also buried its waste onsite without prior approval, however, DEP never issued a single fine for any of these violations. According to reports, the waste remains buried in the Birch Run Exceptional Value watershed.

BOB GING: But I think that these people are discouraged.  I get the impression that everything they do in the field has to be taken care of in Harrisburg.

MT: Just because a company receives a violation does not mean the Department issues any actual “enforcement” of the law, such as a fine. This allows companies to repeatedly violate laws, and still be considered “in compliance.” In other words, you can VIOLATE a law without actually BREAKING it.

Card Creek

BOB GING: You know what frustrates me is you hear them making these arguments all the time: well, if we regulate over heavily the gas industry is going to leave Pennsylvania.  Now they may be good at drilling that Marcellus Shell; I don’t know how they’re going to move it.  I don’t know how they’re going to get down 5,000 feet, grip a formation that bridges three or four states, and move it out to Ohio or someplace else like that.

MT: In August 2009, around the same time as Birch Run, DEP gave PGE an even bigger violation for building their gas site “on top of” an Exceptional Value wetland.

During an unexplained joint inspection with the Army Corp of Engineers, the Corp overrode DEP and put an immediate halt on PGE’s operation. PGE pointed the finger back at DEP, stating the Department had approved the well site’s location. In its letter, PGE refers to DEP inspector Mark Barbier as the first person to point out the “wetland issue,” but that Barbier and DEP were mistaken. Citing its own study by a hired firm called Moody & Associates, PGE declared that the area “is not and was not a wetland.”

Forested watersheds and wetlands provide 80% of Pennsylvania’s drinking water. This invaluable resource cannot protect itself, and instead must be preserved by those who use it and those appointed to enforce the law.

2012 updates to the state’s oil and gas laws increased the distance for unconventional shale gas sites from streams, including EV waterbodies like Birch Run and Card Creek, to 300 feet. Although, even when laws are violated, in these most sensitive places, companies are not made to pay the price, and the distance between action and accountability increases.

BOB GING: You know ultimately what we’re going to have to do is, we’re going to have to go in and we’re going to have to sue the company, and we’re going to have to get them to do what the EP is failing to do.