Risky state oil sites evade flags

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Federal and state inspectors have found no cause for concern when it comes to the six “high priority” oil wells in Pennsylvania.

Located in an environmentally sensitive watershed within the Allegheny National Forest, the wells drilled in 2009 have never been the source of permit violations in inspections by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Forest service administrators visited a week ago and found no issues, and the company that leases the rights from the federal government to operate the wells, Warren-based Pennsylvania General Energy, generally has been cooperative, said Nadine Pollock, ecosystems staff officer for the Forest Service. “Pennsylvania General Energy, in my experience, has always been a very conscientious, attentive developer and operator,” Pollock said.

Still, the wells are a fraction of the 1,500 oil and natural gas wells operated by the company, which does not have an unblemished record. In a little more than a decade, Pennsylvania General Energy has been hit with 251 violations involving 101 oil and gas wells across Pennsylvania and racked up $221,715 in fines from the state, according to DEP records.

Some violations were related to paperwork — failing to post a permit number while drilling, for example — but there were occasions when its activities polluted the environment.

Last year, the company was fined $73,000 for three spills that occurred in 2012 in Lycoming County's Pine Creek watershed. In that incident, PGE spilled an estimated 8,200 gallons of salty “brine” and 89 gallons of diesel fuel during a fracking operation. It was hit with a $52,500 fine for failing to comply with sediment and erosions controls during a four-month construction project in 2011.

The privately held company declined an interview request for this story, but issued a statement confirming that it operates the six “shallow, conventional wells” on 100 acres of federal land in Forest County.

They represent a fraction of drilling activity in the 517,000-acre Allegheny National Forest, in which there are more than 12,000 oil and gas wells, nearly all of them privately owned, Pollock said.

Although the federal government owns the forest land, 93 percent of the mineral rights are owned by private companies. Though the forest service has authority to regulate what happens on the surface, it is required to provide the private mineral owners “access to their subsurface mineral estates,” Pollock said.

In Pennsylvania, the BLM is concerned only with the six wells that tap into federally owned minerals leased to PGE. Five of the six wells were federally inspected between 2009 and 2012, according to BLM records obtained by The Associated Press. All were inspected last year and none was found to be in violation, according to the bureau.

The DEP has performed 15 inspections on those six wells and “they have not resulted in any violations,” said John Ryder, director of district oil and gas operations for the DEP.

Violations or not, environmental groups have decried the drilling and logging activity occurring at Pennsylvania's only national park.

The number of wells there is beyond the ability of the DEP's 82 inspectors to check on a regular basis, said David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment. And even if every well were operating as intended, clearing land, building access roads and putting in well pads and pipelines disrupts the habitat of a place designated for protection.

Inspectors may be on top of the six wells overseen by the BLM, but Masur objects to the very notion that they exist. “We think that, given every other place that we allow drilling and mining and logging (in Pennsylvania), some places should be protected,” he said. “And there aren't many of them left.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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