Pennsylvania’s Gas Wells Booming—But So Are Spills

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ProPublica

Pennsylvania’s Gas Wells Booming—But So Are Spills

by
Sabrina Shankman

As more gas wells are drilled in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale,
more cases of toxic spills are being reported. Earlier this month,
Pennsylvania's environmental officials fined Pennsylvania-based Atlas
Resources after a series of violations at 13 wells, including spills of
fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the
sites. And just last week the agency fined M.R. Dirt, a company that
removes waste from drilling sites, $6,000 for spilling more than 7 tons
of drilling dirt along a public road.

The reports come on the heels of a string of other incidents that
have killed fish in one of the state's most prized recreational lakes
and released toxic chemicals into the environment.

The Atlas spills are significant because they are among the latest and
because they happened repeatedly during the routine transfer of fluids.
Pennsylvania's Environmental Protection Agency fined
Atlas Resources $85,000 for the offenses, which took place between May
and December of 2009. Many of the spills were discovered by DEP
inspectors.

The violations (PDF) cited by the DEP include spills of fluids from the hydraulic fracturing
process at seven sites, and failure to report a spill at one of those
sites. One spill was the result of a faulty pit liner, which is
supposed to insulate the ground from hydraulic fracturing fluids after
they are pumped out of a well.

Atlas Resources
controls more than half a million acres within the Marcellus Shale, the
massive gas deposit that stretches from Tennessee to New York. The
company, whose total revenue was $787.4 million in 2008, issued a
statement acknowledging that it had entered a voluntary settlement with
the DEP and saying that each of the incidents had been corrected. An
Atlas spokesman declined a request to answer additional questions about
the violations, or about the company's operations in Pennsylvania.

"If you look at this series of violations -- it's not only that
there are multiple violations," said DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys,
pointing to the fact that the same three violations were turning up at
each site. "This is a pattern, and it's a problem."

The pattern -- and the problem -- extends beyond Atlas.

In December the DEP fined Chesapeake and Schlumberger, two of the biggest operators in the
Marcellus Shale and in gas development nationally, for spilling
hydrochloric acid, which is used for hydraulic fracturing and is
corrosive. Cabot Oil and Gas, the Houston-based energy company that
lists T. Boone Pickens as one of its stockholders, was fined in November for a series of spills, including a fracturing fluid spill by its contractor Halliburton.

In October Pennsylvania fined (PDF) Texas-based Range Resources $23,500 for spilling nearly 5,000
gallons of wastewater, including hydraulic fracturing fluids, into a
tributary of Cross Creek Lake, a protected watershed near Pittsburgh
that contains some of the state's most robust fish populations.

A DEP report (PDF) on that spill said, "The creek was impacted by sediments all the
way down to the lake and there was also evidence of a fish kill as
invertebrates and fish were observed lying dead in the creek."

The Range Resources spill occurred on May 26, when the company was
pumping fluids from the hydraulic fracturing of three wells through a
six-inch pipe to a DEP-approved impoundment. Along the way, two screws
along the pipe came loose, according to the Range Resources report on the incident, allowing thousands of gallons to spill onto the ground before the company was able to shut it down.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the loosened screws were
a result of vandalism and that the company responded by increasing
security at its sites. The fish killed in Cross Creek amounted to less
than a pound of minnows, he said.

Just three weeks before the fines were announced, Range was
penalized by the DEP for another accident -- this time for spilling
more than 10,000 gallons of flowback water, which again resulted in a
fish kill and a substantial cleanup effort. A DEP spokesman said he
could not comment on that spill, because a settlement is still being
decided.

"We find both of these to be unfortunate and unacceptable," said
Pitzarella, who said that neither spill had any negative impacts on
health or property.

Unlike previous spills -- including the recent Atlas spills -- the
DEP has not issued press releases for either of the Range Resources
spills, and a spokesman has not explained why.

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