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Pennsylvania will monitor for earthquake activity linked to fracking

| Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, 11:12 p.m.

Pennsylvania plans to increase monitoring of seismic activity as tremors linked to hydraulic fracking in other drilling states spur calls for stepped up strategies to deal with human-induced earthquakes.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday they will spend $531,000 on a network of seismic activity monitors at 30 stations across the state for three years. Many of the stations will be on park lands and the equipment will include five mobile units for quick deployment to areas of concern.

Despite a boom in drilling that has made Pennsylvania the No. 2 natural gas producer in the country, the state has not had earthquakes connected to fracking or the deep wastewater injection wells blamed for tremors in states such as Ohio.

“This seismic monitoring network will give the state a better baseline understanding of the state's geology — for all DEP decisions, not just oil and gas,” said agency spokesman Neil Shader. “DEP will continue to use the best available scientific data, of which we'll have more of from this network, in making permitting decisions across the department.”

He would not say whether monitor results could prompt the department to deny a drilling permit.

The monitors will help the Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey map underground activity, including unnatural events such as tremors caused by quarry blasting or activities connected to the oil and gas industry, resources agency Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said in a statement.

Seismologists, academics and state regulators in recent years have drawn connections between increased earthquakes in some states and drilling activities such as storing wastewater in deep underground wells.

StatesFirst Initiative, a multi-state group, issued a 150-page report this week that discussed how regulators have handled human-induced earthquakes in 13 drilling states. Pennsylvania was not part of the report.

Gas production from shale wells in Pennsylvania increased to 4.1 trillion cubic feet in 2014, up from 1.1 trillion cubic feet in 2011. But it has few wastewater injection wells.

State bureau and Penn State researchers have been partnering to monitor seismic data in the state since 2013, spurred by a federal effort that provided mobile equipment, said Christina Novak, spokeswoman forthe bureau.

“In Pennsylvania, we also were interested in collecting some data that was shallower, and added some stations because we needed them closer together for that purpose,” Novak said.

The network will generate data that seismologists can view in real-time from equipment off-site, as opposed to it having to be collected manually from the stations, Novak said.

“It will, of course, be analyzed by Penn State, but they are working on an interactive website …. so folks will be able to look at it on a website,” she said.

The bureau has not conducted a detailed review of the 2013-14 seismic data, which a Penn State grad student collected manually, but it appears that much of the activity was not from the Marcellus shale region, Novak said.

Pennsylvania is behind in gathering information about seismic activity related to drilling, said Mike Helbing, a staff attorney in the Wilkes-Barre office of PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy group.

“I think any effort to get new information is a good thing. And I think it's encouraging to see the state agencies working with universities to perform studies to figure out whether there is a problem and, if so, how to address it,” Helbing said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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