Risky gas drilling waste pits anger Mt. Pleasant neighbors
Kim Staub's backyard isn't the same since Range Resources Corp. dug a black plastic-covered pit at the bottom of grassy hills next door.
The company's Carter Impoundment is bigger than a football field and can hold 15 million gallons of water for Marcellus shale-gas drilling. Nobody has tapped a Marcellus well in Mt. Pleasant since May 2011, but the 3-year-old pit and several others remain, having served wells as far as 47 miles away, according to their owner.
Staub and others call the pit an industrial misfit in a quiet neighborhood and want it gone.
Susceptible to spills of chemical-laden water, waste pits can be one of the riskiest parts of the gas drilling industry. Though they're supposed to be temporary, that doesn't always mean brief.
“We lost the tranquility of our farm,” said Staub, 49, whose backyard abuts the Carter property. Range drained the pit this summer. “It's a truck stop in the middle of an agricultural land.”
Home to the first well of the state's burgeoning shale-gas boom, Mt. Pleasant once again has become home to a showdown between residents and Range, the region's dominant driller. For three summers, the township and company have tangled over land-use laws, the state's oil and gas reforms, and now the pits.
For Range, big pits are a big part of its business. Carter is a special type of pit — the only one of its kind in Mt. Pleasant — designed so drillers could hold water in a central place and reuse it.
The pits are noisy, smelly inconveniences for neighbors, but working without them would mean more truck shipments, said Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella at the Texas company's Cecil offices.
“You're ultimately talking about traffic and nuisance impacts, but all of those things have been dramatically reduced because of these impoundments,” he said.
No change under DEP proposal
The state Department of Environmental Protection, in a regulatory update proposed last week, moved to block some of the smaller, open-top pits often common at well sites. Larger pits, such as Carter, called centralized impoundments, would be OK.
Unlike smaller pits, in which brine can sit for a long time, centralized impoundments are designed to be transfer stations. Water comes in and out relatively quickly, officials said.
Range has eight such pits in Washington County, more than any driller in Pennsylvania and a third of centralized impoundments statewide, DEP records show.
Consol Energy Inc. has five such pits and a sixth pending, the second most in the state. The Cecil company said it wants to put three at Pittsburgh International Airport, where it will begin drilling in spring.
Consol uses the pits for wells within five to seven miles. It connects them by pipes, generating no truck traffic except when loading or emptying the pits, said Katharine Fredriksen, who oversees Consol's environmental strategy and regulatory affairs.
“We've been able to just eliminate (trucks) until we're ready to empty an impoundment and reclaim it,” she said.
The DEP has not inspected Consol's centralized pits, according to its online records. Of seven Range impoundments in that database, all received at least one state environmental violation, most commonly for improper waste handling. Range passed most inspections at those sites without violations and hasn't had a violation for improperly controlling waste since May 2012, the records show.
Staub is among seven families that hired attorney Dwight D. Ferguson to support Mt. Pleasant's case against Range's pits. Some of those residents hired another attorney to challenge Range with claims that benzene and other toxic chemicals showed up in their blood from inhaling waste pit fumes, Ferguson said.
Range has tested air and water near the Mt. Pleasant pits and found them both safe, Pitzarella said.
Range denied similar claims made by three families in Amwell in a 2012 shale-gas lawsuit. The families claimed injury from toxic waste in an impoundment that passed 108 state inspections without a violation since August 2010. The families claim that Range, its contracted labs and the DEP covered up or ignored complaints and evidence.
The DEP and Range deny that.
‘You don't get away from risks'
Many indicators point to waste management as the riskiest part of oil and gas fracking, said Dan Mueller, an engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund. Hydraulic fracturing of deep shale requires millions of gallons of water, which surface containing carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals. Moving that water and holding it in impoundments risks spills or leaks that could seep into groundwater.
Range processes its water before containing it, reducing it basically to saltwater, though it may contain residual waste, Pitzarella said.
Many companies choose to use large tanks to store wastewater, said David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist at Penn State University's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. Yet tanks are not a cure-all, Mueller said.
Tanks can leak — an ExxonMobil Corp. subsidiary agreed in June to pay more than $20 million in improvements and federal fines for tanks that leaked wastewater in Lycoming County. And tanks can cause air pollution if they're not sealed, Mueller said.
“You don't get away from the risks,” he said. “It all depends on the installation.”
Industry and DEP experts said open pits are safe when built correctly, with two layers of impermeable plastic lining, a leak-detection system, and groundwater monitoring wells. The state allowed the earliest centralized impoundments without such standards starting in 2009 but beefed up regulations to require those things in 2010.
Problems have been limited to minor spills during loading and unloading, said Alan Eichler, a DEP oil and gas program manager.
“We haven't had, as far as I know, many major events. Most of what we have seen is housekeeping-type stuff,” he said. “It's an industrial operation. This facet of (drilling) has had issues just like anything else.”
Industrial sites amid homes
That's exactly the problem for people in Mt. Pleasant: the Carter Impoundment is an industrial development outside the industrial part of town. The township tolerated it while Range drilled there but doesn't believe it makes sense to allow long life for an industrial site in a residential neighborhood, officials said.
Range officials have said they plan to drill again in Mt. Pleasant, possibly this fall. The company could drill 10 to 20 shale-gas wells in the township in coming years, Pete Miller, water resources manager, testified during an Aug. 13 zoning hearing. Testimony is scheduled to resume Sept. 10.
“We thought a well pad and ... an impoundment could fit in this room (and) it wasn't going to be that big of a deal,” zoning board Chairman Barry E. Johnston said at the hearing. “... We just were, in a sense, overrun with the magnitude of what this is.”
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.
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