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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

PA Regulators Falling Short on their Duty to Protect the Public from Fracking Risks

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process that blasts bedrock to create fractures for natural gas to escape form the bedrock. Fracking is used in unconventional wells that are extended horizontally from an initial vertical borehole. The process is used in Pennsylvania to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is encountered as depths as great as 8,000 to 10,000 feet below ground in the northern and western parts of the state.
Hydraulic fracturing of an unconventional gas well.

( http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Minerals_Energy/?header=How%20do%20we%20access%20Unconventional%20Gas)

I am not anti-fracking. As a geologist, I understand how fracking is supposed to work, and I think it’s a viable means of extracting natural gas from deep formations in which conventional drilling is not practicable. But I also think that Pennsylvania has done a horrendous job of overseeing how the energy companies operating in PA drill for natural gas and manage their drilling wastes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does a great job covering Marcellus Shale gas drilling issues in PA, including reporting on negative environmental aspects of bringing this natural resource to market. Last week the Post-Gazette ran a great editorial piece that cited data they obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) about compromised water supplies related to oil and gas operations. The editorial also criticized PADEP for issues with public access to information related to water supplies contaminated by oil or gas drilling activities. Many of the chemicals used in the fracking process are claimed by drillers to be trade secrets. And PADEP will not release information about those chemicals. So the public and their advocates have no opportunity to evaluate the risks they may be facing from fracking fluid contamination. 

When the reports about methane in residential water wells near Marcellus gas wells in northern PA first started hitting the media five or six years ago, the red flags should have been clear to anyone familiar with drilling. The drillers were swearing that there was no way methane from their target formation at 8,000 feet below ground could have contaminated the shallow aquifer only 100 to 150 feet bellow ground where most domestic wells are built. And, if the wells were constructed properly, that should be true. But the drilling boom came upon PADEP too quickly. The DEP had neither the field inspectors nor the funding to hire enough field inspectors to be able to ensure that gas wells were being constructed properly.  

Steel casing is supposed to be cemented into the surrounding bedrock to a depth far below the drinking water aquifer. The cement slurry, a mixture of cement and bentonite clay, effectively seals the annular space around the outside of the steel casing to prevent any drilling fluids or gas from leaking around the casing and getting into the aquifer. And a good annular seal also prevents surface runoff water from seeping down along the outside of the casing and tainting the underlying drinking water aquifer. That is assuming the wells are being properly sealed.

In my job, I have overseen drillers installing hundreds of groundwater monitoring wells or remediation wells designed to delineate or treat petroleum, solvents or metals contamination in groundwater. There have been many times I have given the driller my construction specifications and, when they thought I wasn’t looking, caught them cutting corners. Most often the corner getting cut involved how they were grouting the well materials in the borehole. And that's exactly what I think happened in the majority of instances in which methane was documented in domestic wells in close proximity to an unconventional gas well.

If the cement used to seal the steel casing into the borehole is mixed with too much water, the cement will shrink as it cures and will pull away from the borehole walls. If not enough bentonite is mixed with the concrete, if it is not mixed uniformly or if it is pumped too quickly down the borehole, there may be pockets of concrete that do not seal completely to the borehole walls. These are the conditions that PADEP inspectors should have been on hand to look for during well drilling. Presumably, at this point in the drilling boom, something as basic as proper well grouting has been rectified between drillers and PADEP.

Fracking fluid impoundment in western PA.

(photo credit: Observer-Reporter.com)
Assuming that gas wells are now being properly constructed, spills of drilling fluid are probably the biggest on-going concern for public health. Spills of drilling fluids are a largely preventable threat to groundwater and surface water resources. A different Post-Gazette editorial published earlier this week cited the disturbing frequency of drilling companies failing to detect or report spills on their drilling sites. Half of the drilling fluid spills for which PADEP fined drillers through 2012 were not reported to PADEP by drillers as required by law. Instead, they were reported by drilling site land owners or neighboring property owners or observed by PADEP inspectors or other officials.

PADEP needs to be better funded to better police Marcellus drilling sites so that drillers will be less likely to carelessly allow preventable spills to happen and will be more diligent in policing their sites to promptly discover and act on truly accidental spills. PA’s groundwater and surface water resources depend on it.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Growing Smart Controls Long-Term Costs for Communities

I read this great article in Time earlier this week. It’s a brief primer for anyone who wants to hear about how so much of today’s sprawling suburban and commercial development that is touted as economic growth has the opposite effect in the long run. Chuck Marohn is a former municipal planner turned evangelist for Smart Growth.

I heard Chuck Marohn speak about a year and a half ago, and he converted me. The bottom line of Smart Growth is that communities must be sustainable, and new development far removed from existing population and infrastructure is typically not sustainable. All municipal officials should be doing long-term cost/benefit analyses for any new development projects they are considering approving, and private development should not be subsidized by public funds unless there is sufficient long-term pubic benefit.

Unchecked development in the present, sprawling into former farm fields, is not the path to future long-term prosperity. Developers who receive subsidies from state or local governments – whether it’s to extend a sewer line or road widening and traffic signalization – are typically no longer in town to share maintenance costs after the project is built out and sold. They are not around to share in the replacement costs of that new public infrastructure when it’s time to replace the first-generation structures. And because the long-term costs were not considered up front, the tax payers must pay perpetually for those project-specific improvements. It's amazing that more fiscal conservatives have not figured out that sprawl is fiscally unsustainability.

Where I live, in Lower Macungie Township, PA, our Planning Commission and former Board of Supervisors seemingly used to give developers almost anything they asked. Utility concessions, road improvements and stormwater infrastructure were all fair game. Accepting dedications of streets in new residential developments or industrial parks is nothing unusual in most areas, even though the municipality then becomes liable for all repairs, repaving and snow removal. And there is a public safety argument there, because emergency services vehicles need to reliably be able to get to emergencies in these developments.
Stormwater basin in Lower Macungie Townshp, PA
(photo by Lower Macungie Township)

Stormwater management is one thing that local governments certainly should not be subsidizing for developers. Until recently, our municipal government was accepting ownership and liability for stormwater infrastructure from developers. In fact, as of last Fall, out of 88 stormwater basins on record in the township, Lower Macungie township was fully responsible for 23 stormwater basins, with another 23 basins previously agreed to be dedicated to the township upon completion of the projects and transfer of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits from the respective developers. So the Lower Macungie taxpayers are on the hook to fund the perpetual maintenance on these stormwater facilities.
Four Seasons Development in Lower Macungie.
Development is not connected to surrounding
neighborhoods, but stormwater basins are
maintained by homeowners association.
(photo by Newton Engineering)

Our current Board of Commissioners has gone on record as saying that, going forward, they will no longer accept new stormwater facilities from developers. That's great, because it means that any new residential, commercial or industrial developments must maintain their own stormwater retention basins. That’s significant for new residential developments, because it means that they will have to form a homeowners association to manage their stormwater facilities and associated liabilities. But municipalities cannot afford to continue to absorb these long-term costs from the developers of subdivisions and the subsequent owners of the resulting parcels.

Emmaus, PA. A classic community with mixed-use areas and
a vibrant,walkable downtown district. (photo credit:
So while my community’s new projects may remain subject to an illogical, Euclidean zoning map and might not be walkable or connected with the existing community in a Smart Growth kind of way, we can demand that new development must pass a cost/benefit analysis to ensure that the taxpayers will not be saddled with long-term costs unique to the new project.

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Praise of Volunteers

Penns Meadow stormwater basin upland area, showing
trees amidst a sea of wild flowers (photo by author).
I’ve written previously about the naturalized stormwater basin (Penns Meadow) in my township that our Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) has adopted. The basin was a roughly 3.5-acre, shortly-mowed lawn until our county conservation district was awarded a grant in 2010 to retrofit it with three different types of stormwater best management practices featuring appropriate native vegetation. I had the opportunity to work with a small group of great volunteers at Penns Meadow last week to tackle a project, tree protection, that has been on the EAC’s to-do list for a couple of years.

First, let me clarify the role that our township EAC is supposed to have. The EAC was established by ordinance in 2009 by the Board of Commissioners at that time with the stated purpose to:
“advise local governmental agencies including, but not limited to: the Board of Commissioners, the Planning Commission, and the Parks and Recreation Board, on matters dealing with the protection, conservation, management, promotion, acquisition, and use of natural resources including air, land, water, and open space resources located within or affecting Lower Macungie Township.”

And these stated duties are the types of things we discuss at our monthly meetings. However, in a municipality of 22 square miles in which 31,000 residents are connected by over 100 miles of township roads, there are some things of interest to the EAC that don’t fall into standard municipal services categories. For example, following up on proper maintenance of the Penns Meadow stormwater basin area has never really been officially delegated to any particular department or staff members.

Although the EAC was never intended to be a hands-on group of volunteers, we make an effort to coordinate volunteer projects once or twice a year for the good of the township’s natural resources. Many of these projects have involved Penns Meadow, simply because the retrofit was a great project and we want to ensure that the original efforts are properly maintained. And such was last week’s project at Penns Meadow, with the volunteer labor supplied by a group of Master Watershed Stewards.

Tree tube installed on a tree to prevent

rodent damage to bark (photo by author).
Our local Master Watershed Stewards Program is run by the Penn State Extension service. It currently operates in only three of PA’s 67 counties, however. Similar watershed steward programs are run by state land grant colleges and universities in a few other states (Arizona, New York and Ohio). Several other states have Master Naturalist programs that are probably comparable. Our Pennsylvania Master Watershed Stewards complete 40 hours of training on a wide range of topics such as:  the hydrologic cycle, groundwater, water chemistry, water test interpretation, stream ecology, wetlands, forestry, dam removal, riparian buffers, soils, geology, invasive plants, stormwater and flooding. Following training, 50 hours of volunteer work are required to complete the program and earn the title. In successive years, 20 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education are required. It’s only in its second year here, but it looks like it’s turning into a great program. And for an EAC chair who is often looking for volunteers to help with the Penns Meadow stormwater basin site, I’m happy to have some new volunteers to include so that I don’t burn out the boy scouts who usually help us with projects each year.

Mulch from township's years waste composting
operation and tree with a protective tube in
background (photo by author).
Last week’s project with our Watershed Stewards involved installing tree protection tubes around the trunks of 140 trees and spreading some mulch at the base of those trees. The tree tubes will serve two purposes. First, they will improve the visibility of some of the smaller trees among tall, dead, herbaceous vegetation in the winter when the area gets its annual mowing. We’ve had mishaps with trees getting run over once before, because the EAC did not have the trees marked out clearly enough. The second, and more critical, need for the tree tubes is to prevent rabbits and other smaller rodents from eating the bark around the trunks over the winter. While helping to install some of the tubes last week, I noticed at least one tree that had a ring of bark gnawed off around the base of it. Bark damage that encircles a tree like that is called girdling. If that girdling continues all the way through the bark into the underlying cambium layer, a tree does not stand much chance of surviving. Hopefully, with the new tree tubes in place, the girdled tree I saw can recover, and girdling of other trees will be prevented.

Thanks to the Lower Macungie Public Works Department for delivering about 10 cubic yards of mulch to the site – enough for all 140 trees receiving tubes. The Watershed Stewards distributed the mulch to each of the trees with either wheel barrow or by lugging a couple of five gallon buckets. Thanks to Julie, Shannon, Jien and Crystal for your sweat equity in Penns Meadow.

It was a hot evening, but it was nice to see the wildflowers in bloom. They look a heck of a lot better than a scorched lawn at this time of year.
Purple cone flowers (foreground) and wild bergamot (background) in bloom (photo by author).

Black-eyed susan (yellow) and swamp milkweed (tall with purplish flowers) in bloom (photo by author).