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Drilling-related leaks becoming 'more and more of an issue'

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By Timothy Puko
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
 

A drilling-related leak into a stream last week prompted the state Fish and Boat Commission's eighth investigation since last fall into leaks from Butler County-area pipeline projects, according to spokesman Rick Levis.

It has fined two companies $13,500 for sediment leaks that threatened aquatic life in the area, part of a problem that has plagued the state as drilling operations ramp up, commission officials said.

"It's becoming more and more of an issue," said Tom Kamerzel, who directs the commission's law enforcement bureau in Harrisburg. "Early on, there were very few protocols the industry was following. They would just drill and keep drilling, and (drilling mud) would work its way into waterways."

With a wet, hilly topography here, it's very hard to keep Pennsylvania's streams crystal clear whenever pipeline companies bore underneath them, commission and industry officials said. Regulators prefer pipeline companies bore under streams, but high pressure from underground boring can easily force drilling mud into creeks, threatening aquatic life.

"Any time you bore, you have a chance of having a surface discharge," said Michael Brinkmeyer, general manager of Keystone Midstream Services LLC, the latest company to come under investigation. "We try to use best practices and when we have an incident, we try to (tell) the authorities right away."

Keystone's contractors were boring 60 feet underground Tuesday to install new pipe when pressure on the saturated ground forced water and the drilling clay bentonite up through natural fissures into an unnamed tributary of Crab Run in Lancaster in Butler County, Brinkmeyer and state environmental regulators said. The clay gathered in Crab Run as thick as one-fourth of an inch, dissipating more than two miles downstream, Levis said Friday.

The commission and Department of Environmental Protection investigators found no dead fish as of Friday but are still monitoring the stream, spokesmen said. Regulators will monitor the project until it's completed, department spokesman Kevin Sunday said.

Bentonite is commonly used during boring to push cuttings to the surface. While it's not toxic, any sediment leaking into streams can kill fish and aquatic life by clogging their gills, burying them or burying their eggs, scientists said. The native brook trout, a species of great concern, buries its eggs at just this time of year, said David Argent, professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences at California University of Pennsylvania.

"This could be extremely detrimental to aquatic life," Argent said.

The problem has been rare in the state's southwest region but much bigger in the northcentral area, where there are more creeks and streams, said Lawrence Furlong, the commission's assistant regional supervisor in the southwest.

Problems have been building in Butler and Lawrence counties, part of the commission's northwest region, since the drilling boom started to spread there in early 2011, said Tom Tarkowski, assistant regional supervisor in Meadville.

The commission fined XTO Energy, owned by Exxon Mobil Corp., a total of $6,000 for two separate incidents of sediment pollution in Butler County, Levis said. It fined EMATS Inc., a pipeline company, $7,500 for improper sediment controls and sediment entering a pond, Levis said. Officials at those companies could not be reached Friday evening.

Levis said he could not comment on the five other pending cases.

Bentonite "isn't a horrible dangerous substance. The industry is doing everything it can to minimize this," said Cathy Landry, spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

Pipeline companies have grown more responsible, Kamerzel said. When leaks happen now, companies are more likely to stop boring and contact regulators for oversight and assistance, as they're supposed to. Keystone alerted regulators immediately after the leaks started and has cooperated, Brinkmeyer and state officials said.

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