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Research maps out gas boom impact in Washington County

| Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The natural gas boom has disturbed nearly 1 percent of the land in Washington County, according to a federal study, one of several designed to chart the revived industry's impact on Pennsylvania land.

With possibly thousands gas wells on the way, the early data confirmed previous research that found wells, pipelines and access roads for gas could rival or surpass the historic disturbance from other mining and logging industries, said John Quigley, the former state secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. Nearly all of the 0.83 percent of land carved up in Washington came from forest and farmland, according to the report released on Wednesday by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Its six-researcher team mapped the land physically changed by gas development between 2004 and 2010. It released results for Washington County and Bradford County, which had 0.41 percent of its land disturbed, according to the report.

Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Patrick Creighton said that because of evolving drilling practices, the footprint of wells is smaller than before. “It's important to note that well sites and pipeline right of ways are temporary construction projects on mostly private land that will be reclaimed after work is complete,” he said.

Pipeline reclamation usually does not include reforestation, as lines are usually left as clearings so their owners can do safety and security checks with flyovers.

One of the federal study's most important findings was the leading role pipeline installations play in forest fragmentation, said Patrick Drohan, a soil and forest expert at Penn State studying drilling. Those new clearings can lead to big ecological changes, endangering sensitive forest life that depends on interior forest for habitat, Slonecker said.

USGS will release assessments of other counties in coming weeks, part of an effort to set baseline data for a series of government studies on gas drilling impacts, lead author E.T. Slonecker said.

“This is real-time, almost real-time hard data — not estimates, but actual calculations based on high-resolution mapping. This thing is the real deal,” Quigley said after reading the report. “This, if it continues, is some of the best information that I can imagine to help us really monitor the physical impacts on the landscape. I think it's tremendously important.”

The researchers used biennial aerial photos of the two counties to spot cutouts for wells, pipelines and their access roads, and then charted those into a computer map system to tally the acreage changes.

While ground-level research would have been helpful to verify the work, the study's findings and implications conform with other major recent research on Marcellus shale land use, Drohan said. Drohan's research team in August estimated that the industry could lead to 278 to 695 square miles of disturbance, comparable to the state's number of abandoned surface mines.

The Geological Survey is working on a wide-reaching research agenda mandated by Congress, Slonecker said. Other federally funded researchers will assess the implications of the changes, including studies about sedimentation and water, changes in species distribution, habitat loss and invasive species, he added.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991or tpuko@tribweb.com.

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